January 31, 2005

Air quotes in New York

We're having a nasty cold snap in New York. Plus the snow is piled high and dirty, the days are short, and current events are depressing.

But there is one thing that never fails to cheer me up walking these glum streets, and that is signs written by shop owners under the impression that quotation marks convey emphasis. One of my favorites is a cleaners that advertises its "free pick up and delivery", as if there's something abstract or hypothetical about the service. Or, another shop has Why rush? Drop off your laundry on your way to work, "pick it up on your way back home" — as if that's a song title or some kind of wise old saying. Then there's one I pass every day, where a proud candy store tells us that "when it come to nuts, chocolates and candies, we are the best".

The grammar of that last one shows that most of these shops are run by immigrants, who often have limited knowledge of English, and especially the nuances of English as it is written. What's interesting, though, is how very commonly immigrants make this particular mistake. Part of the reason is that it is an understandable mistake — even a predictable one. After all, quotation sets off something someone says, and it's a short step from setting something off to emphasizing it. For someone with a distant relationship to the printed page — at least in English — it's natural to suppose that quotation marks are highlighters, since in a way, they are.

There's nothing unusual here. For example, it is exactly these kinds of small misinterpretations that changed Old English into Modern English. A thousand years ago, I will go meant that you willed to go, that is, you wanted to go, not that you were going to go. But because what you want is often what ends up happening in the future, people gradually started thinking that I will go meant that I shall go. After a while, so many people were hearing it this way that now, I will go did mean I shall go. The immigrants are making the same kind of leap of logic about written English today.

But fans of books like Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves need not fear. Written language is more resistant to change than spoken language. Plus, these immigrants' children learn traditional writing skills in school. Just as they often don't have their parents' accents, they won't be sending out wedding invitations saying "Your presence is requested."

Which means that using quotation marks as what we might call The New Boldface will just hang around as an underground alternative punctuation. New generations of immigrants will pick it up from older ones.

Or at least I hope so. There's a certain elegance to the quotation marks in this new usage; they can spark up a tired old phrase like Free Pick Up and Delivery. And they're sure better than what big marketers have been doing to fine old logos lately, as another way of highlighting. In one logo after another, the letters are now slanted to the right, so that they look like they're running like the Road Runner. I suppose the idea is to make it look like Denny's is a dynamic experience, or that Sunoco will rock your world. But life goes by fast enough. I want my Burger King Whopper to sit still.

Or, if I want to go healthier, then I could try one shop whose exquisite sign used to entice us to Create "a" Salad. I must admit I never quite understood what they were getting at there, but it did brighten many of my days.

Posted by John McWhorter at January 31, 2005 01:26 PM