Paul Greenberg

Then there’s the popularity of overused punctuation, like the ubiquitous quotation marks that now smudge the language like flyspecks. They show up on signs, in contemporary prose, in ads, and even in the air (air quotes). They’re used for purposes for which they were never intended, including emphasis.

The other day, those inverted commas popped up in a letter from John White, chancellor of the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus, to its newly hired Athletic Director, Jeff Long:

“You will recall our discussion of the special role Razorback athletics plays for the State of Arkansas,” wrote the chancellor. “Arkansans consider themselves ‘winners’ when the Razorbacks win….”

Why the superfluous quotes around winners — to indicate skepticism? That’s why they’re sometimes called scare quotes or sneer quotes. But surely that’s not the purpose in this case. Any outward show of skepticism on the chancellor’s part about the central place of football, our state religion, in Arkansas’ psyche would be heresy.

Maybe the quotes are there to signal that the chancellor is using a metaphor — lest we be too dense to realize it on our own.

Or maybe, as I suspect, the chancellor in his own vague way is using the quotation marks around “winner” to indicate more than just success in an athletic contest but a whole attitude toward life — an attitude that encompasses not just winning a game but pride, achievement and confidence in general. As in a winning personality.

If that’s what he meant, why not say so? For the same reason teenagers of all ages take refuge in mental shorthand (“whatever”) when words fail.

Am I making too much of the importance of language? I don’t think anyone can. On that subject, I share Robert Hartwell Fiske’s fanaticism.

By now quotation marks are used out of habit, just for the heckuvit — not only around a direct quotation, where they belong, but as decoration in general. Like so many curlicues on Victorian houses, furniture, stationery, anything. They have become the most over-used and under-needed of all our linguistic symbols, spreading like a plague of measles, settling over the language like a swarm of gnats.

It’s all enough to make an editor wish that, like the mayor of a little Siberian oil town, he had the power to ban annoying linguistic habits. Perhaps if Mayor Kuzmin ever tires of his day job, he could apply for one as night copy editor for a morning paper. He seems to understand the problem.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.