The Joy of Quotation Marks

A colleague of experimental psychologist Steven Pinker once joked that verbs were ‘his little friends’ as Pinker believed that the way they are used can give genuine insight into the hidden machinery of cognitive processes.

You know who my ‘little friends’ are? Punctuation marks. I think that they can often give the game away. Take this doozy:

The best secondary schools trusted the incoming ‘levels’ achieved by pupils in primary school as a starting point . . .
–OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013, p.42

The writer asks schools to trust things called “‘levels'”, which the writer has deliberately placed in quotation marks. H’mmm, interesting. Now why would they choose to do that?

By my count, there are five reasons to use quotation marks:

1. Reported speech — this instance doesn’t seem to fit that usage.

2. When coining a new word or phrase — again, this usage is unlikely in this instance.

3. When referring to a word as a word — again, it doesn’t seem to be the intention here.

4. To indicate the title of a book or article — this is definitely not the case here.

By a process of elimination, this seems to leave only one plausible reason for the writer to choose to use quotation marks:

       5.   To imply that the quoted word or phrase is dubious.

So let’s be clear here: the writer is asking schools to trust things called “‘levels'” that he or she apparently considers dubious enough to wrap in ironic quotation marks.

In this paragraph, Ofsted are urging schools to trust what Ofsted themselves (going by their use of punctuation, at least) consider untrustworthy. What are they going to ask us to do next? Square the circle? Cut down the largest tree in the forest with a herring?

Now, where else have I seen ‘levels’ in quotation marks recently? Oh yes . . .

As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed.  It will not be replaced.
–DfE, June 2013

Let me summarise: in June 2013, the DfE tells us that ‘levels’ are gone, but then in November 2013, Ofsted admonishes us for not taking ‘levels’ seriously enough.

Sigh. Education: does thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth? Ever?

As a teacher, my way forward is crystal clear: it’s time to get busy cutting down the largest tree in the forest. Now, where did I put that herring . . .

6 thoughts on “The Joy of Quotation Marks

  1. missironfistatheist June 28, 2014 / 7:05 pm

    If there’s another way to go
    I missed it twenty long years ago.
    My life was a war that could never be won
    They gave me a number and murdered Valjean
    When they chained me and left me for dead
    Just for stealing a mouth full of bread!!

    • e=mc2andallthat June 28, 2014 / 8:40 pm

      I was born with scum like you
      I am from the gutter too!

  2. ChrisN June 29, 2014 / 8:05 am

    Nice idea, but I’m afraid you’ve left out several of the reasons for using quotation marks, as described here (from Wikipedia):
    “Quotation marks are also used to indicate that the writer realizes that a word is not being used in its current commonly accepted sense:
    Crystals somehow “know” which shape to grow into.
    In addition to conveying a neutral attitude and to call attention to a neologism, or slang, or special terminology (also known as jargon), quoting can also indicate words or phrases that are descriptive but unusual,…”
    The relevant usage here is “to call attention to special terminology”. In other words, to indicate that “level” has a special technical meaning here (national curriculum or SATS levels) rather than the more general way we might talk about children having different levels (degrees/amounts) of educational attainment.
    I do agree, however, that in this case the quote marks are undesirably ambiguous, and the writer should instead have used brackets to explain exactly what s/he meant by “levels”. In fact, the Wikipedia article discusses exactly this problem of confusion.

    • e=mc2andallthat June 29, 2014 / 9:49 am

      Many thanks for this interesting point, ChrisN. You are, of course, correct that QM could be used in this way to highlight that a word is being used in a special technical sense, and I also agree that this leaves the gate open for a large amount of ambiguity as to the writers intentions.

      The example about crystals “knowing” what shape to grow into is interesting. I would argue that this usage would be acceptable in an introductory or popular level text, but would have no place in a text that purported to be at higher, technical level such as a textbook or scientific paper.

      My main point (rhetorical exaggeration for effect aside) is that this was an example of sloppy and ambiguous language in a document from an organisation that should be able to produce technical writing that is a model of clarity.

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