When quotes are “scary” or “random”

Random quote marks

If read as is, the “cheese” in the burgers could actually be made of recycled cat food, and the store making sandwiches defines “fresh” as anything properly rinsed after hitting the floor within the last two weeks. “Meat Service” could only mean that someone has seen Sweeney Todd one too many times, and “restrooms” – I don’t even want to know.

If you feel that any of these writers employed quotations correctly, then you may just have a “problem.”

Why are quotation marks so misunderstood?

It’s easy to get tangled in grammar, but quotation marks should never trip you up. They are used to denote something someone has said, surround titles or works, or to set aside special terms. Yes, that’s it.

Because English has no other way to denote sarcasm or irony in print, quotes are sometimes used in this capacity. Also called “scare quotes,” they surround a term that may actually mean the opposite of what is written. You can see how that would (often hilariously) affect the meanings of all the signs above.

No matter what anyone might believe, quotes are NEVER used for emphasis. You have caps, bold, and italics to play with – sometimes even color – but never, ever quotes.

Use quotes sparingly, in fact, this particular punctuation should not be used on signage. I’d love to hear your exceptions, below.

Trust me. You don’t want your customers believing that “massage” and “wash hands” are euphemisms for…well, you just don’t!


Mélanie Hope is a professional speaker, author, and coach who travels the world teaching greater communication skills while making as many people laugh as possible.

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