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Grammar lesson

Typing remains painful for me, but I feel I must pound my keyboard, nonetheless, in defense of the English language and its punctuation marks.

I refer to the Trumper’s defense of his wiretapping lie, an example of the reporting thereon here:

“I think there’s no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election,” Spicer said. “The President used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.”

So far as I know, no one has asked Mr. Spicer for another example of the use of quotation marks to imply that the words contained within those marks are not to be taken literally, but are meant to be interpreted in a broader sense. That is, in fact, the exact opposite of their commonly accepted use. One uses quotation marks as a means of precisely reproducing what someone else has said.

I use quotation marks a lot, both in this blog, and in legal briefs, and it has always been my understanding, an understanding that is absolutely correct, that the words within quotation marks are the exact words used by a source, whether named or unnamed. Trump’s use of quotation marks, if one follows the universal understanding, means that he intended to convey to his mindless followers that someone with knowledge had used the very words he was using to describe what Obama was doing. It usually implies, additionally, that the writer (in this case, Trump) believes the source is to be trusted, though with Trump we can be certain that the opposite is true.

Recently people have started using “air quotes” when they speak. We’ve all seen it. Someone pauses, puts two fingers of each hand in the air, and brings them down as they utter the air quoted words. The use of air quotes implies two things: that the speaker is using the same terminology as the person they are quoting, and that the speaker is metaphorically rolling their eyes and calling bullshit on the quoted person. You can probably use air quotes in a piece of writing, but you have to telegraph your meaning, and in any event, it’s obvious that Trump was not calling bullshit on his source, although if he had any sense he would have known that the stuff he read was, in fact, bullshit.

There is one other use of quotation marks, which I utilized in the previous paragraph when I put quotation marks around “air quotes”. Quotation marks are also used to indicate that a word or phrase is being referred to in its capacity as a word or phrase. If Trump were using his quotation marks in that sense, his current defense still makes no sense.

This is today’s grammar lesson.

You’re welcome.

UPDATE: I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and I came across this passage on quotation marks. I think I’m fairly consistent:

Quotation marks have a number of legitimate uses, such as reproducing someone else’s words (She said, “Fiddlesticks!”), mentioning a word as a word rather than using it to convey its meaning (The New York Times uses “millenniums,” not “millennia”), and signaling that the writer does not accept the meaning of a word as it is being used by others in this context (They executed their sister to preserve the family’s “honor”).

I don’t think Pinker would go along with the Donald’s understanding, whoever he might grope to define it, of the use of quotation marks.

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