Margaret Soltan has a nice post on the overuse of quotation marks, including a pointer to a website dedicated to stomping out this phenomenon.
I wouldn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, though. When I think about the way I inattentively put quotation marks into my own prose, I’m aware of several underlying reasons for doing so beyond actually quoting the words of an author or speaker. Some of them are at least conditionally valid.
First is what Soltan describes as the straightforwardlly ironic quotation mark. I think sometimes this is a compact way to be snarky or dismissive that has the added advantage of being plausibly deniable. If I want to mock or undercut someone, it may be excessive, pretentious and self-important to devote several meticulous sentences to a sober criticism of that person’s behavior when the punctuation equivalent of rolling my eyes derisively is available. The problem is that this technique is overused, or used when the situation demands a more serious treatment. Also, some people accidentally make a phrase or title ironic with misused quotation marks when they didn’t mean to.
Second is the classic postmodernist use of quotation marks to bracket off a concept or idea that can’t be easily dispensed with but that the author doesn’t want to use normatively. This technique became horribly overused for a while, and eventually became both a substitute for making genuine arguments and a way to avoid having to admit that some of the attack on such concepts was failing to understand just why they couldn’t be easily dispensed with (e.g., because many of them remain genuinely useful). But there is still a real question here. Suppose I write an essay talking about why the concept of Africa is a major problem for historians because once you’re talking about the continent before 1750, Africa (I almost put it in quotes right there and then) isn’t an accurate or useful way to describe the diversity of societies on the continent, that it is empirically inaccurate. This isn’t just some generic concern with social constructions: before 1750, societies south of the Sahara didn’t see themselves as sharing a common identity, they didn’t really have any strong shared institutions or practices that linked them all together, they weren’t geographically linked, and so on. Once I finish that essay, I almost have to put “Africa” in quotation marks. Or I have to explain in a fairly sophisticated way why and how present usage trumps the actuality of history and therefore we should just go ahead and organize the study of pre-1750 African history as such even when it’s really not empirically accurate to do so.
There’s a variant on this kind of bracketing and that’s when I want to remind readers continuously that I’m using an offensive or troubling word because the discourse I’m writing about uses it, but that I absolutely don’t want my readers to take my use to be normative. If I’m writing about British imperial sources in 1920s Africa, I’m going to have to talk about “the natives” at times because my sources do. But I don’t want to write something like, “District officers in southern Africa talked regularly about the native problem”. Without quotes around “the native problem”, you could get the impression that this is how I think. It’s not a direct quote of a specific text, but a collective quote of an entire species of texts. There isn’t a simple phrase I can translate that into that doesn’t require bracketed quotation marks because the concept itself is rooted in some specific historical way of talking. I could say, “District officers in southern Africa struggled with the contradictions of modern liberalism and imperial control, with seeing Africans as both human subjects and racial inferiors, with irresolvable questions about what the ultimate purpose of empire in Africa really was.” That begins to explain what was meant in past usage by “the native problem”, but if I’ve got to have that full phrase in play every single time I want to refer to the concept of “the native problem”, I’m going to have a very long essay before I’m done. The problem is of course that academics and other authors begin to bracket off virtually every word and phrase as a preemptive strike against anyone who might take offense.
Third is a related usage. I find I tend to want to put phrases in quotations when I want it to be clear that I’m referring to a common usage that is particular to some smaller discursive community of writers and speakers. Take the term social construction above. My impulse to bracket that is almost irresistable because I want it to be clear that I’m using it as a reference to a particular scholarly conversation at the same time that I want to communicate that this post is itself not directly within that conversation. I think this is the major impulse that produces the most usage of quotation marks in prose, and the worst misuses and overuses. For example, some writers bracket off everyday phrases. Or some writers bracket off phrases that they mean to use directly, in complete agreement with the phrase and within an appropriate context of its unbracketed usage. For example, if I’m at a conference of game scholars and we’re all talking about virtual worlds, it’s stupid to bracket the term. If I’m writing an essay for a general audience about counterfactuals in history and I happen to mention that “virtual worlds” are novel way to explore counterfactuals, the quote may be appropriate because I want to call attention to the term and acknowledge its novelty in this context for my readers, the extent to which the phrase is indigenous to some other conversation or context. The only mistake from that point on is if I put the term inside quotation marks from that point forward for the rest of the essay.
(Would someone please put quotes around the previous comment?)
Actually, I think the example you almost provided as postmodernist wouldn’t have been postmodernist at all. It would simply have been grammatical. Putting quotes around “Africa” in that context (or, for that matter, as I just did) is a way of acknowledging that you’re dealing with the label, rather than the label’s referent. You could, for instance, have written “the word ‘Africa’ isn’t an accurate way to describe…” Using quotes in that context simply gives you a shorter, more graceful way to say “the word ‘Africa'” without having to say “the word.”
Right. But the problem is what follows on that initial acknowledgement. If I take my own critique really seriously, from that point on I should always say “Africa” rather than Africa if I’m dealing with pre-1750 history and need somehow to refer to the prior way of conceptualizing the subject. I could write an article or teach a class on states of the sahel, savanna and forest in West Africa, but I’d struggle mightily to never refer that back to some larger project of African history, etc.–so what do I do at that point? Always bracket “Africa” in quotes? That’s the strategy of writing that some of us used for a while, but it gets pretty arch and tedious in short order, partly because you’re making clear just how impotent the conceptual argument about the term really is, just how indispensible it has become to knowledge production and everyday reference. (This is one of the basic epistemological drivers behind postcolonial theory, in the end: the inescapability of referents that the critic would desperately like to escape, how to “provincialize the West”, as Chakrabarty puts it.)
And precisely because so many words that academics use are both the label and the label’s referent, that kind of gesture starts to metastasize pretty rapidly. For the same reasons, I should probably bracket “states” when I’m talking about African history. And so on.
A more compact way to summarize the dilemma can be found in this video after the 3:28 mark.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a concept possessed of dubious genealogy is in want of quotation marks.
However little known the feelings or views on such a concept may be on first reference, this truth is so well fixed in the conventions of the surrounding discourse, that it is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of the specialists.
I’ve tended to use the capitalized form as a way of distinguishing signifier from signified (e.g. Nature), but I’m finding myself puzzled as to how to do that when the nouns and concepts involved are already capitalized.
Other than coming up with a new vocabulary entirely (e.g. nonhuman organisms, physical environment, in my own field), I suspect one is stuck with the quotation marks in short pieces and the obligatory discussion of terminology in the preface of longer ones.