Friday, 19 June 2009

"Quotation marks" & "ampersands"

In a recent Chambers blog, it was noted that bad grammar and poor punctuation often annoy people, yet there are websites devoted to some of the more peculiar interpretations of grammar and punctuation rules. One such site is the pleasantly diverting The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, which collects examples of this phenomenon (think along the lines of Please "close the door" behind you) caught on camera by contributors.

Chambers Perfect Punctuation advises that quotation marks can be used to set apart words you want to distance yourself from, often to indicate that you are being ironic or sarcastic. However, the use of quotation marks to highlight words or phrases presented without a trace of irony or sarcasm is on the increase. There seems to be a widespread notion that you can use inverted commas for straightforward emphasis, as you might use underlining.

A more recently emergent fashion in writing is the use of an ampersand in place of the word 'and' in running text. Conventional usage dictates that ampersands are acceptable in titles, company names and fixed abbreviations such as A&E, but should not be used in formal running text. Now this elegant little symbol is increasingly used – very often in subtitles that appear in rolling news programmes – as shorthand for 'and' in phrases such as a lethal combination of reckless & excessive risk-taking.

But how annoyed should we be by this more indiscriminate use of the dainty device? Perhaps our level of irritation should be correspondent with the level of confusion that a misuse might engender. A misplaced apostrophe or comma, or wrongly used quotation marks for that matter, could result in ambiguity, but there can be no doubt what '&' means in any context. The character was originally a ligature of E and T (Latin et, meaning 'and') used in printing and, as if any reinforcement of its meaning were needed, the word 'ampersand' has a delightfully circular etymology, coming from 'and per se, and', ie, & by itself means 'and'. So, if an ampersand so determinedly and exclusively means 'and', why worry about the context in which people employ such a handy symbol?

In this spirit of objectivity, we can identify the stages of any linguistic bugbear. Stage 1 is irritation when the development becomes apparent. You might question why this construction/word/punctuation mark is being used in such a clumsy and haphazard fashion when its purpose is to provide clarity in a different situation. However, if you are not the type of person to be riled by something as apparently innocuous as a punctuation mark, you might proceed directly to stage 2, amusement. Incongruous incorrect usages can have an unintended comic effect, something that the quotation marks website capitalizes on. Then there is stage 3: acceptance. The gripe is considered old hat, one raised only occasionally by stuffy pedants, and the 'misuse' (necessary quotation marks?) becomes so commonplace that most people cease to notice or care. You never know, the day could come when no one bemoans the incorrect insertion of an apostrophe in a plural.

Mary O'Neill

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