Many writers overuse quotation marks to add emphasis, tone, or suggestive accents. While it is occasionally a good practice to make a word stand out, it is incredibly annoying when you make too many words stand out. If you try to raise the emphasis, suggest a new meaning, or add tone to too many words in a sentence, you muddle up the real emphasis and tone.
William Saffire opined eloquently in one of his New York Times columns that quote-unquote is essentially used to sneer. He observed that when written or spoken, the words quote-unquote translate into so-called and are intended to cast aspersions on the word or phrase that follows. Here is an example.
TV anchor commenting about the reporters at a competing network: “The reporters at station KXYZ are engaged in quote-unquote journalism in a way that improves their ratings.”
The quote-unquote modifier to journalism is similar to the use of “journalism” with quotation marks to suggest that the word is being used disparagingly. Overusing quotation marks comes across as arrogant. Some authors may believe they are creating a new meaning or usage of a word, but this is rarely true. Another annoying habit of many, many speakers is overusing “if you will” and “this is what I call…” These terms are shorthand for “if you will allow me to coin the term.” Who needs it? Here are some typical examples.
- We need to do better planning in our projects. This is what I call “proper preparation.” [This is what everyone calls proper preparation!]
- We need to do better planning in our projects, proper preparation, if you will. [If I will what? If I will allow you to define planning as proper preparation? Who wouldn’t?]