An insulting misuse of quotation marks

April 22, 2018 • 10:30 am

I spotted this sign in one of the fancy-schmancy stores that sell arts and crafts around the perimeter of the old Plaza of Santa Fe:

Why the scare quotes around “artisans”? Are they not real artisans but faux artisans or artisans manqué? And wouldn’t they be insulted to find the denigrating quotation marks around their status?

There’s no excuse for this in a high-toned store, but of course the use of inappropriate quotation marks is common. See here for many posts and even websites that specialize in collecting these errors.

84 thoughts on “An insulting misuse of quotation marks

  1. This begs the question as to why the quotes are there at all. Perhaps the sign-maker, or the management, believe that the weavers do not deserve to be called artisans. Or perhaps the items are imported from China. Santa Fe is so touristy that it wouldn’t surprise me if items on sale are not what they appear to be.

    1. That is actually a big problem.

      Authenticating local work can be a full-time job. There are lots of counterfeits out there, jewelry, rugs, pottery, etc.

      And some of it is even deliberate on the part of the natives. Nambeware used to be made at Nambe Pueblo by members of the tribe. Now it’s made in Indonesia.


      1. Yes. Today we even have to worry about whether the romaine lettuce is from Yuma or not and whether the cod at the supermarket should really be labelled “cod”.

    2. In a thread about proper English it should be acceptable to question the use of “begs the question” when what’s really meant is raises the question.

      Begging the question is the argumentative fallacy of treating as granted the very thing being argued.

        1. Literally begging the question would be sitting in a street with a bowl asking passers by to put questions in it. “Begging the question” is idiomatic and it means exactly what Dr. I. Needtob Athe said it means. It’s another expression for assuming the conclusion.

          1. I’m not giving in on this, so save your fingers. I have millions behind me on this one. And, yes, I know that doesn’t mean I’m right. And it’s in many dictionaries! Even Google agrees with me!

      1. Also, Google gives this definition for “beg the question”:

        1. (of a fact or action) raise a question or point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question.

        This is clearly what I meant.

        1. I never use “beg the question” anymore because there are too many “people” (in quotes because it’s not the word I’d prefer to use) out there pointing out that what has become normal usage is wrong.

          1. I was taught the incorrect way of using the phrase as a child, so it’s stuck in my brain.
          2. Most people use it in the way that is supposedly incorrect. It’s become normal usage.
          3. I’ve never read an explanation about the correct way to use it that actually makes complete sense and explains it clearly.

          Therefore, easier to avoid it altogether.

          1. I’m somewhat of a contrarian so I am planning to use it even more! LOL. But seriously, I don’t think “fallacy” definition of the phrase should hold sway against what the words in the phrase mean taken literally. To do so begs incredulity!

            1. Personally, I agree. And also, telling me not to do something usually makes do it more too. I knew what “contrary” meant before I was two years old. The nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ my mother re-worded to ‘Heather Mary, quite contrary …’ and chanted it at me with great frequency. (Mary is my middle name.)

              1. I’m thinking perhaps I shall tell students, “Please do repeatedly interrupt the teacher.” That way, perhaps they will not.

            1. I think that, after most people use the phrase in this meaning, then it has become, by definition, correct.

              I could care less. I’d just assume ignore the whole issue.

              IOW, it depends on how much distortion of words occurs, the ambiguity caused, and what alternatives there are.

              My examples are just wrong, because the meaning of the sentences doesn’t agree with the meanings of the words.

              “Begging the question” is different, because linguistic meaning isn’t really threatened if it’s taken to mean “raise the question,” or something like that. On the other hand, the formal fallacy really doesn’t have another common English name, so the common usage does cause unnecessary ambiguity. On the other hand, the Latin name “petitio principii” actually means something more clear, “assuming the initial point,” so maybe it would make more sense to let “begging the question” stand for the more common meaning, while the formal fallacy should be called by something other than a mistranslation, which “begging the question” is. Just call it ” petitio principii,” or “assuming the initial point.”

              I guess I think the latter probably is the best. The pedants are defending a mistranslation anyway, which is hardly worth the pedant points.

              Glen Davidson

          2. My comment above is an example of begging the question, Heather. Essentially, it is a form of circular argument. But since no one noticed, I guess you are right. People don’t understand the correct meaning, so go with the flow.

              1. The dirty dr that needs a bath and me (and I 🙂 ) are meaning the original meaning: the circular argument, finding what you put there in the first place.
                The Qur’an is the word of God and infallible, why? Because the infallible Qur’an says so.
                This injection feels like a bee-sting. It is good it hurts, if not we would be lying comparing it to a bee-sting.
                Those kind of things.
                Of course one is free to use it as ‘raising the question’, but one risks to be considered slightly ignorant.
                On the other hand, insisting on it’s ‘correct’ (or ‘original’) use , carries the risk of being considered pedantic.
                You can’t win 🙁

        2. Since many people use the phrase in the same manner you do, and since the meaning can usually be divined from the context, strictly speaking your usage of “begs the question” isn’t wrong, particularly for those of us who take a descriptivist view of language.

          But since “raises the question” is a perfectly functional term — and since, as Dr. I says, “begs the question” has a particular meaning as a term of art in formal logic — it diminishes the language to use the latter in the stead of the former.

          So why not avoid doing so?

          1. Because “begs” is actually better in this context. “Raises” is somewhat passive, whereas “begs” says that the issue is made prominent by its omission.

            1. 1) Do you think such urgency was warranted in the first sentence of your comment that started this sub-thread?

              2) Can you think of any other instances where the verb “begs” alone (viz., where not followed by an infinitive such as “to differ” or “to have”) carries the connotation you claim?

              I think you’re using “begs” here as a shorthand for the phrase “begs to have the question raised,” And, in that respect, I find it imprecise. (But that’s just one man’s opinion.)

      2. I’ve always thought ‘begging the question’ meant going off on a different track (or answering some other point than what was intended). But I agree, its meaning has got thoroughly muddled over the years, so I personally would avoid using it.


  2. I assume that whoever made it was quoting someone who had called them “artisans,” and so thought it was a good word to quote.

    Someone who obviously didn’t know what scare quotes are.

    Glen Davidson

  3. Trump does that too, for emphasis, along with Capitalizing words for no apparent reason, though I have noticed Russian twitterbots doing that too.

    And what’s with the justification? Right, left center???

    1. Random capitalization, de trop quotations marks, and otiose exclamation points constitute the lingua franca of the wingnutosphere.

  4. Relatedly, this is what I believe in re
    the phrasing, “thank you very much” or
    “thank you so much.”

    Which … … now ? Everyone everywhere
    states when s(h)e is thanking anyone
    for any reason at any time.

    Is the thanking – person’s sentiment
    “.not. real ?” Not actual ? Not sufficient ?
    Unless ?

    Me ? People get back thus, “Thank you, Ms Johnson.” “Thank you, Mr Smith.” cuz … …
    .that. is e n o u g h. It has to it
    The FULL Power of my gratefulness. Enough.


  5. Maybe it’s some kind of in joke or ‘those in the know, know’ statement? Out of curiosity I typed in “the word artisan”, in Google, and one of the auto-complete options was “the word artisan is overused”. Maybe Super Kewl artisans must signal knowing irony when using the word?

    Or maybe it’s just an error. Who knows!

      1. Often happens. Semi-literate people think quote marks can be used as a form of emphasis.

        Almost as common as misplaced comma’s.


  6. Years and years ago I actually worked as a proofreader. There was a “restaurant” in the neighborhood with a menu that was a smorgasbord of random capitalization and erroneous quotation marks. My favorite was the meatloaf which was “‘fresh daily’.”

  7. My guess is that the owner delegated the sign making to a younger person. It is my observation that younger people simply do not understand how to use quotes (or other punctuation) because they spend all their time on their phones texting with abbreviations . . . so probably thought the “quotes” meant it was cool.

  8. I recall a NYT travel article referring to gold-panning [and I think diamond panning as well] as “artisanal” — that is, the hand-mining, not the handwork of the rings, etc, which were produced locally.

    I’ve also heard of hand-milked goat, sheep, cow milk as “artisanal” — again, the distinction seems to be anything done the hard way..

  9. From the link it appears that sign making people sometimes use them as emphasis, as if they are allergic to italics or underline or something. I guess!

  10. I’m thinking maybe the practice has spilled over from letter boards that don’t have the appropriate typography for emphasis so they use quotation marks for emphasis.

  11. Looks like we got a splitter folks haha. Lexicographer Grant Barrett:

    “A hearty endorsement of shout quotes: scare quotes used for emphasis”

    I suggest the term shout quotes. And I suggest that the use of quotations for emphasis be condoned for casual use by all language authorities: hired, self-appointed, or otherwise.

    They’re appropriate when you have no other easy way to indicate emphasis. They’re appropriate when used, for example, in casual sign-making. They’re appropriate when bolding or underlining is not possible. They’re appropriate when used by people who don’t do typesetting for a living.

    The intentional misreading of the shout quotes as scare quotes does grow rather thin. The sign that says We Love “Sushi” makes one commenter on Flickr wonder whether the sign-maker meant “cat” in place of “sushi.” See, if “sushi” is in quotes it must mean that the word is dubious, right? Maybe they’re selling cat-meat instead of fish?

    No! They just wanted to emphasise the word “sushi.” Very simple. You have to go out of your way to get it wrong.

    1. Yes, let’s let language become hopelessly ambiguous. Quote marks just mean whatever you want them to mean, even nearly opposite meanings.

      Maybe we should just read periods as question marks, too.

      Glen Davidson

      1. That would sure alleviate the abundance footnotes in Shakespeare plays! Alas my friend, they have not heeded your advice.

      2. Thoroughly agree with you, Glen. (Yes I know you’re being sarcastic, I agree with the sarcasm).

        Incidentally, I’ve been reading (for practice) some French paperbacks and it intrigues me that they indicate quotes in a quite different way e.g.

        – Words mean what I want them to mean, no more and no less, affirma Humpty Dumpty.

        (But that’s no excuse for being ignorant in English).


  12. They were probably already using bold and uppercase and wanted to make the word artisan stand out in a positive sense. When you don’t have font formatting options like bold or underline, you use something else. I often put a word in CAPITALS for emphasis in blogs and suchlike (WEIT for example).
    The use of quotes meaning “so-called” has entered the “culture” presumably from Internet and texting and there is the ubiquitous gestual form with jigging fingers on both raised hands like rabbit ears to bracket the word being spoken.
    Using quotes does tend to inject a level of sarcasm however.

  13. I am less worried about inappropriate punctuation marks (although they always give me a chuckle. Especially if I do them.) I’m more concerned about totally inappropriate choices of words on the internet and in print media. Proofreading seems to be a non-existing art. For awhile I was keeping a list for my own amusement, but it got too long and, I became sad. Example: “Undulation” used when “ululation”was intended.

    However, if one looks at a few pages in the OED, it will become apparent that for centuries word meanings have changed drastically over time. For example: look up “silly”.

  14. Or, how about languages in which the words are run together with no punctuation (and, maybe, no spaces.) Especially, in combination with no vowels. Now, let’s read right to left. Let’s throw in a few foreign words. Especially ones that it’s easy to get wrong. Like using “embarazada”in Spanish to intend “embarrassed”, but it means “pregnant”. Or mispronouncing a common word in such a way that it sounds obscene. I especially enjoy the languages written in an alphabet or characters that I have no knowledge of. Or, foreign pronunciations of words I can’t get right that make people giggle. Language is so much fun!

  15. It looks to me as if the quotes are meant to emphasise the value of artisans, but the word was already was already capitalized. Bet the signwriter doesn’t get apostraphe’s, either.

  16. Umm, what does “on location” mean?

    Does it mean “here”?

    Or does it mean “elsewhere”, as it would in film-making parlance (which I think was the original and presumptively correct usage)?

    How to cock up a sign two ways…


  17. I think the quotes are meant to indicate that it is not the word they usually use to describe the makers. It is chosen to suit the customers, and is quoted to mean “we think this is what you call them.”

    They also added a note at the bottom to clarify that they are not imported.

  18. On a sign, I think they are used (clumsily) to delineate the quoted words from the rest of text. So, a form of emphasis I guess.

    If you watch old movies, you will notice they often put the title of movie in quotes to isolate the title from all else. Either that or “Casablanca” really means: this is actually California, not Casablanca.

  19. When we are talking about the word in scare quotes, we should write “”artisans”” shouldn’t we? If we write “artisans” it refers to the unquoted word. Maybe using “””artisans””” in our post is just too confusing, so we always stick with “”artisans”” and “”artisans” in quotes” but not in quotes.

    Just to clarify, when I wrote “”””artisans”””” in the second sentence, it had three levels of quotation because it was a reference to “””artisans””” in the first sentence.

  20. Among a lot of people, especially here in the South and on signs in public places, quotation marks are used for emphasis instead of bold or underline.

    I don’t know why, but the trend seems to have gained strength because of people not knowing how to use HTML to get bold or underline and so they substitute quotation marks or asterisks.

  21. After long pondering I think I found the reason: this stuff is machine made, by putting “artisans ” in quote marks they are covering their bottoms in case someone wants to sue (we’re in the US of A, after all) when they find out.

  22. Well, in an traditional indigenous community in many places, (effectively) everyone participated in what one might call art. So maybe that’s it …

    Nah, I don’t buy that either!

  23. I am still flummoxed by this sign. Erroneously putting an emphasis on artisans doesn’t make any sense either, it would be like saying “We serve food – cooked by a CHEF”; or “Original paintings, created by ARTISTS”. That would seem unlikely anywhere but especially so in a trendy area where people would generally be too kool to act naively impressed by the idea of a real live ARTISAN. It might make sense if the reference were to some rare material (Made with genuine SANTA FE GOLD), although even that would be kinda over the top – but saying jewelry was made by a JEWELER just doesn’t make sense at all.

    I still suspect it’s an in-joke or has a backstory of some sort. Like whoever makes them said “Oh for heaven’s sakes, I’m a mom who weaves in her spare time, not a fancy pants ‘artisan’, would you stop calling me that?!”; and the store owner replied “Well you’re an ‘artisan’ now, I’m putting it right here on this sign!”; or somebody’s puppy or toddler somehow helps in the weaving or design process and they thought it was cute to call them an ‘artisan’, or something like that.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go check my mail. It was delivered by a bona fide MAIL MAN. (We are very fancy around here.)

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