I frequently run into uses of quotation marks on public display that simply baffle me. I have no idea who or what is being quoted, what the original reference is, or why it's necessary to indicate that this is a quote.

Quotation marks around sign message "road work ahead".

Clearly it's no accident: the quotation marks take effort to add. Someone had to go to the trouble of putting them there, someone who felt he had a reason to do so.

If it were a one-off occurrence, I would chalk it up to miscommunication. But this is so common a practice that I wonder if there's some common misconception, or perhaps convention in a foreign language which leads people to place quotation marks where they are not, in English, traditionally expected.

Alternately, is there some meaning communicated here that I am missing? Do these quotation marks actually indicate something of which I wasn't aware?

  • 1
    Quotes for emphasis are fairly common. It's a native thing. Aug 29, 2013 at 21:59
  • 1
    It's even mentioned in Wikipedia. @tchrist Note that I don't claim that it's correct. Aug 29, 2013 at 22:02
  • 1
    @Gilles native to where? It certainly isn't in the US.
    – tylerl
    Aug 29, 2013 at 22:02
  • 6
    This is just another fine candidate for The “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks.
    – tchrist
    Aug 29, 2013 at 22:02
  • 3
    @tylerl it is native in the US alright. Your very own post suggests that it is, does it not. If you ask me, it is native everywhere. It is native in other languages, for that matter. Not all languages, mind you (from my personal and anecdotal experience), but a great many languages. People just don't know how to use quotation marks. Most people don't know how to use X whatever X is.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 29, 2013 at 22:15

4 Answers 4


There are plenty of times that quotation marks can change the meaning of a short piece of text, however, I don't think that's the case here.

It's quite likely that this was indeed the result of a miss-communication, but not the kind you're thinking of. If you were received a written message telling you to place the words "road work ahead" on the sign, it might not immediately occur to you that the quotes were not intended to be part of the message.

This kind of thing is not that uncommon. Here's a more obvious example of what I mean: Cake is decorated with writing: "Way to finish strong, Bull Dogs", followed by the words "All Caps" in patentheses.

Here, the intent was obviously to indicate that the message written on the cake should be with uppercase letters, but the baker mistook "(All Caps)" as part of the message itself.

  • Actually I doubt this is a mistake. The baker did exactly what he was told to do. It's not the responsibility of contractors to proof-read or interpret what they are told.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 22, 2014 at 8:26

You're not missing anything. There has recently been an unfortunate trend to use quotation marks where they're not warranted or appropriate. You can see many more examples of this in at the blog tchrist linked in a comment.

Quotation marks should not be used for emphasis or no reason at all, as in your example and most in the aforementioned blog.


While I find this practice (i.e., the mistaken use of quotation marks for emphasis) utterly deplorable in formal writing and hand-written signs, it might be somewhat excusable in electronic road signs, when more appropriate means of emphasis (e.g., italics, boldface, underline, etc.) are unavailable.

In CS (Sorry. That's jargon for "Computer Science!"), rendering a message, or even an ENTIRE sentence, in upper-case is considered gauche (The CS term is "shouting"); however, I believe its use for a SINGLE word or SHORT phrase is a reasonable substitute for the otherwise-unavailable tools of emphasis.


When using signs where the message may not always fit (think scrolling or flashing displays), it's a fairly common practice in CS (Computer Science) to use quotation marks to display the start and end of a message.

  • What does "CS" mean?
    – TrevorD
    Aug 30, 2013 at 11:57
  • @TrevorD: Computer Science.
    – Jacobm001
    Aug 30, 2013 at 14:57
  • Would never have guessed that in a month of Sundays!
    – TrevorD
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:07
  • @TrevorD: My apologies... Sometimes my field gets so ingrained in my head I forget to translate.
    – Jacobm001
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:15
  • That might apply to the electronic road sign, but it is also very common in hand-written signs by, say, greengrocers! And it is "also" used with just a single word within a sentence on a sign. So I don't think the general trend has to do with computers? Aug 30, 2013 at 15:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.