Punctuation is becoming increasingly decorative and less functional

The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks calls out abuse of the quotation mark. For some reason, quotation marks are being increasingly used as a form of emphasis (a usage which remains controversial), by people unaware that such use, when interpreted as scare quotes, serves to undermine their original point.

Mind you, the emphasis theory doesn't explain all misuses of quotation marks I've seen. I'm led to believe that some people simply enjoy seeing quotation marks and place them around randomly-selected words.

Apostrophes are another commonly-misused punctuation mark. So much so that the city of Birmingham has simply given up and deleted them from all their street signs. Other cities followed suit.

Tying together all this is a sign I saw in an airport dining facility:


The challenge isn't so much finding what's wrong with the sign as it is finding what's still right. (As a bonus, the sign was next to another sign that read "No free refills", which only served to create more confusion, because the first sign suggests that refills are free if you stay inside the facility, but the second sign denies it.)

Today is National Punctuation Day.

Comments (40)
  1. Kevin says:

    Technically, if you write your quotes "like this", you're breaking the (American) rules, specifically the rule that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.  The rules are a little different in the UK, but you're still expected to have punctuation inside of scare quotes and anything fictional.

  2. Kemp says:

    I never got the American rules for punctuation and quotes. Essentially, the quote is a discrete piece of something that is inserted into your sentence. Adding punctuation into it therefore seems intuitively wrong to me for two reasons: i) the punctuation isn't part of the quote and yet is presented as such and ii) bits of your sentence are being merged into something that should be a single "object" (not the right word here) in the sentence. It makes as much sense to me as merging the punctuation into words:

    Unfortunatel,y due to a faul,t this elevator is not in use.

    I guess I sort of expect programmers to think this way as they are perhaps more used to mentally splitting things into logical blocks than the average person would be.

    (Disclosure: I'm British, but wasn't explicitly taught that this was the correct way. It just already made sense to me and when it was eventually brought up it seemed obvious.)

  3. Adam Rosenfield says:

    I tend to follow the rule (whether or not it's correct) that when writing quotations spoken by people, I put the punctuation inside the quotation marks; but when quoting anything else (especially technical stuff), I put the punctuation inside only if it's literally part of the quote, which it usually isn't.

  4. G B Shaw says:

    "I often quote myself. It adds spice to the conversation."

  5. kinokijuf says:

    S̈ö d̈ö d̈ïäc̈r̈ïẗïc̈s̈.̈

  6. kinokijuf says:

    Argh. Verdana messed up combining diaereses.

  7. Mario Cossi says:

    There's no confusion: one sign is about getting a REFILL, the other is about getting a REFILLL, which is only possible with a container that is twice as large.

  8. Anon says:


    Technically, it has to do with printing and saving space- the punctuation is more easily added to a letter than to another piece of punctuation. (A comma can be directly underneath an 's', for example, and not look unusual – but place the same comma underneath a /"/, and it looks like you're trying to do /','/.

  9. Anon says:

    Whoops… meant to include a bit about the apostrophe…

    I don't understand what's "difficult" about the apostrophe.

    If you're saying someone owns something, you add " 's ". You never use it to pluralise a word of more than a single letter.

    People might find it odd when it comes to "The maids' daughters", but I've never understood why people are so dense as to write "She owns seven cat's" or "Free Refill's."

  10. Kemp says:


    You know, that actually makes sense. I doubt my brain will accept it as being the better formulation, but at least I now know a good technical reason for it to exist :)

  11. Random User 109457 says:

    Unless I am doing writing for someone who has provided a style guide, my approach has always been to worry less about what is purportedly correct, and more about just being self-consistent within the document. As long as you aren't chaotic about it, it seems only the pedantic are bothered when you don't follow their pet rules.

  12. Joker_vD says:

    Some languages have punctuation rules codified, written down on the paper, and proclaimed as the only correct. Because five different "style guides" with five different punctuation variants is nonsense.

    And of course, the ending punctuation goes OUTSIDE of the quotes, and Oxford comma is wrong: there is also colon. E.g., "I want to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah" vs. "I want to thank my parents: Bill CLinton and Oprah".

  13. Gabe says:

    I think that usage of quotation marks has certainly changed over time, but many of the "unnecessary" quotation marks are used in a sense similar to how they've been used in the past.

    For example, it's common to see movies from 100 years ago have their titles in quotes, so I'm not concerned when I see quotes around something where you would see quotes in a document. That is, a title or something that somebody said is reasonably to put in quotes, even on a sign.

    Of course, using quotes for emphasis is entirely wrong, and a good number of examples are of ridiculous usage.

    A nice one is the WE HAVE "EASTER" "BREAD" "STOP IN", where they use qoutes for emphasis ("EASTER" "BREAD") and then around a quotation ("STOP IN")!

  14. Kythyria says:

    My view is that putting punctuation inside the quotation marks does not excuse you from also putting it outside, as if the entire quotation was a word (this rule means I often end up putting /."./ at the end of a sentence). Oh, and that quotation marks cannot mean emphasis.

    They can, however, have a meaning similar to the [sic] token sometimes used to indicate an apparently malformed quotation is correct, for use when the writer disagrees with the use of the quoted term in this context but for whatever reason is obliged to use it, a bit like air quotes.

  15. JDP says:

    I had a picture of a convenience store that had a sign reading "NO FREE RE-PHILS". But there was no apostrophe.

  16. pmbAustin says:

    I never put punctuation inside the quotes unless that punctuation is PART OF THE QUOTE.  Anything else makes zero sense to me.  I know it's an old convention in the US to always put the punctuation inside the quotes, but I find it results in too many opportunities for ambiguity or changing the meaning of what is being quoted (i.e. invalidating the quote).  I refuse to hew to an archaic convention that violates my every notion of logic, reason, and correctness.  So sue me :-)

    I also consider the oxford comma to be non-optional.  Any convention that says it's forbidden is simply wrong and should be ignored.

  17. Nick says:

    My biggest frustration with punctuation is what to do with a smiley face that is inside a parenthetical.  This sentence is an example (and here is the problem :)).

    The two )) look unpleasant and might even hide the smiley altogether from an inattentive reader. I usually compromise and merge the two (making it look like this :).  A side bonus is I've saved an extra byte (or two!). However lexical analysis has become more complicated :(

  18. Jim Buck says:

    Smiley faces as such: This sentence is an example (and here is the problem :) ). I actually do the same with URLs in case some software is still out there, and there no doubt is, that has trouble link-ifying something like this correctly: This sentence is an example (and here is the problem: http://www.example.com). I instead always do: This sentence is an example (and here is the problem: http://www.example.com ).

  19. AndyCadley says:

    @Anon, that's a great rule of thumb until you want to say something belongs to "it" at which point it's "its" and not "it's", because "it's" means "it is" and "its" means "belonging to it". English is just great like that.

    Being a Brummie, I remember the endless controversy over King's Heath and Kings Norton and their apostrophes. Ridiculous that anyone felt it necessary to waste so much time and money over that (although not nearly as ridiculous as the attempt to rebrand Xmas as "Winterval")

  20. Apostrophe's says:

    I don't know why anyone gets confused about apostrophe's.

    The rule is simple: An apostrophe means "Look out! Here come's an S!"

  21. > Punctuation is becoming increasingly decorative and less functional

    As far as I can remember, there have always been examples of poor punctuation, and examples of good punctuation. I suspect this will always be the case.

    I state without proof that punctuation use is actually improving over time.

  22. @AndyCadley: there's no apostrophe in any of the possessive pronouns. Why would there be one in "its"?

    mine; ours / yours / his, hers, its; theirs

  23. caf says:

    One nice thing about that sign is that it demonstrates the correct meaning of the idiom <i>"the exception that proves the rule"</i> – in this case, the exception (that you will not receive a free refill if you leave the facility) proves the existence of a general rule (that you will receive a free refill in other cases).

  24. caf says:

    The possessive apostrophe presents a puzzle.  If the apostrophe in "AndyCadley's bike" is indicating the contraction of "AndyCadley, his bike", then surely possessives should be gendered and we should use "Jane'r truck" if the possessee is female?

  25. cheong00 says:

    What is "free refilll" anyway? (Sorry, can't resist…)

  26. Christian says:


    Look at this, your problem is adressed here:


  27. jk says:


    Winterval was awesome and in no way anything to do with "rebranding Christmas" en.wikipedia.org/…/Winterval

  28. JohnElliott says:

    Perhaps some of the spurious quotation marks come from people used to editing wikis which use multiple apostrophes for ''emphasis''.

  29. RP7 says:

    @caf, The notion that the possessive apostrophe is an abbreviation of "his" is very old but ultimately incorrect.  Posessive "'s" is a remnant of an Old English case-inflection.  Modern Swedish also uses the genitive "s" ending, although it doesn't bother with the apostrophe.

    The rules of apostrophe usage have varied over time (I recall reading that the rules for possessive plurals were fixed relatively late).

  30. misc says:

    The Government Printing Style Manual, or so I recall, was down on apostrophes in geographical and organizational names. So one has Prince Georges County in Maryland, and one had the Veterans Administration. Now that I think of it, though, the royally named counties hereabouts mostly get no "s": Queen Anne in Maryland, Prince William, King George, etc. in Virginia.

  31. Oh man says:

    "Some languages have punctuation rules codified, written down on the paper, and proclaimed as the only correct. […] and Oxford comma is wrong […]"


  32. Jeffrey says:

    @Jim Buck  

    Ha, and I thought I was the only one who suffered from URL parsability anxiety.  The parser's job is made more challenging by MSDN, which habitually delimits query string parameters with parentheses instead of the conventional question mark.

  33. JeffGer says:

    Here's a fun college entrance exam question I recall from years ago (I no longer remember which college).

    Punctuate this sentence:

    That that is is that that is not is not

  34. Gabe says:

    Meanwhile, periods in initial abbreviations have almost completely evaporated in the past couple decades. I grew up learning that you spell "USA" and "pm" as "U.S.A." and "p.m.", but now most everybody but the New York Times and Wall Street Journal elide the periods.

    I was taken aback to see somebody post "L.O.L." on a social media site!

  35. Anon says:


    As a quotation? 'That that is, is; that that is not, is not.'

    As a grammatical construct? "That that is is. That that is not is not."

  36. RP7 says:

    Reminds me of "Jeremy, while James had had 'had had had', had had 'had had'. 'Had had' had been correct."

  37. Grammar hedonist says:

    Could also just let it roll off the tongue without any pauses. That that is is that that is not is not. Meaning "something that exists is not something that does not exist".

  38. ender says:

    I'm reminded of

    The sentence 'On the fish and chips-sign he wanted to have a hyphen between fish and and and and and chips.' would be a lot clearer if there was a quotation mark between 'between' and 'fish' and 'fish' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'chips' and 'chips' and the point.

  39. Rick C says:

    @Maurits Whenever someone mentions the grammar rule for the new millennium, I am reminded of this: http://www.angryflower.com/aposter.html

  40. Joshua says:

    that that is is that that is not is not

    Punctuated: That that is is that that is not is not.

    Parse tree: (that (that is) is that (that is not)) is not

    Meaning: A thing that is equivalent to its non-existence does not exist.

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