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By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Mike McConnell

There was one defense I never heard offered during recent cases of high-profile authors accused of plagiarism -- that we have far too many quotation marks, anyway. Maybe they were just trying to whittle down the surplus.

I am reminded of this at least once a week, as I walk past a restaurant with a sign proclaiming The Home of "Baltimore's Best College Food." There is no hint of who wrote the words within quotation marks -- a food critic, a sarcastic customer, or the owner's mother?

The restaurant is far from alone in using quotation marks without attributing the words to anyone. The high-profile authors in question simply took the logical next step and didn't bother with quotation marks.

You can test the proposition that we are surrounded by meaningless quotation marks by opening at random the telephone directory's Yellow Pages. You won't have to go far to find similar unattributed quotations, although some sections are far more interesting than others. You may need, for example, to explain to your companion why the directory is open at Escort Services ("Ask About Our Specials"). I did the telephone directory exercise recently and "random" turned out to be the section on bail bonds. Here is a list of unattributed quotations that littered this eight-page section, two of which appeared more than once: "Anywhere-Anytime," "Tried the Rest -- Call the Best" (I don't want to meet the client who falls for that line), "*****5 star service," "If It Looks Like Your Luck Is About To Fail, Call [us] NOT JAIL," "WE NEVER CLOSE," "LIVE RESPONSE 24 HOURS A DAY TO AGENTS ON DUTY!" (I can't figure that one out), "We Make House Calls" (an interesting concept in the bail bond business), "Why Stay in Jail -- When You Can Be Out on Bail?," "We're Nice to Deal With" (important to the sensitive felon), and "THEY PUT YOU IN ... WE GET YOU OUT." The latter agency added, "WE SAY YES TO YOUR CHECKS." That's a lot of quotation marks with no author in sight. It is no wonder a busy best-selling writer or two might feel that readers are used to not knowing who is being quoted, so why bother?

There are times when unattributed quotations sound downright sinister, especially if you slide them around a sentence. Let's take the case of the restaurant's The Home of "Baltimore's Best College Food." Look how dramatically the meaning changes if you put the quotation marks only around "Best," or, more appropriately, "Food." If I am flying, I pretty much don't care what the airline's slogan is as long as there are no quotation marks around "Safety."

There are some signs that the surplus of meaningless quotations marks may be dwindling slightly. Several years ago it was fashionable in some branches of academia for speakers to pause before certain words, raise hands shoulder high with palms facing the audience, and wiggle both index and middle fingers while uttering the word. This device, "air quoting" -- sorry, air quoting -- at first struck me as kind of nice. Sometimes I wanted to wiggle my fingers back in a show of support, but was afraid it might look like an intellectual mating ritual. The whole point of air quoting was for speakers to disassociate themselves from the word being uttered, indicating that it was only coming forth under duress and that the speaker recognized that the term - - a word like "race" -- didn't represent anything "real." At the height of air quoting I recall talks in which the speaker pretty much put quotation marks around every concept and part of speech in the English language. That fad seems to have waned, and maybe the same thing will happen with signs like the one in the restaurant's window.

Whether that means giving credit to real authors is another matter.

In over 30 years of flunking students for behaving like those best-selling writers in the recent news, I have probably heard every excuse except "America has too many quotation marks." When that day comes, I will agree with the plagiarist, acknowledge him or her as a brave freedom fighter against excessive quotation marks -- and still flunk the student. Maybe for stealing the excuse.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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