Sometimes misuse of quotation marks isn't just stupid; it's downright disrespectful and unethical

In the past week, I've come across a disturbing number of records from various mental health providers in which an aspect of someone's life is placed in quotation marks. For example:

lives with her "fiancé"

has been spending the mornings at his "job" (in the case of someone who is paid cash for doing odd jobs at a local business)

his "girlfriend" was observed to be in the apartment

told this writer about several of his "friends"

belongs to a "Kingdom Hall"

What is the deal here? I really wish I could just attribute this to shoddy grammatical skills, but unfortunately I'm familiar with the writing style of all of the people who completed these records (or received a large enough sample to decently assess the writing skills), and none of these individuals seem to be deficient in use of grammar or punctuation. They all seem to have a good command of the language. Good enough, in fact, that they effectively used subtle sarcasm, rather than objectively describing whatever reservations they had about someone's friends or place of employment or place of worship. Which, if they had spelled out in prose, they would have probably realized were inappropriate and not their place to make judgments.

Because, really, what would you write? "Told this writer about several people who he refers to as his friends, but who, in this writer's judgment after a five-minute conversation, are clearly not friends, which indicates that he does not have sufficient judgment in terms of the language he uses to define the people in his life?" Even if it was relevant to note that he was describing dysfunctional relationships, I don't see how it's anyone's place to question the word he uses to define someone's role. Plus, the writer eliminated potentially helpful information, such as whether the person seems to have a strong support system, or maybe doesn't seem to have such supportive friends.

"Lives with someone whom she refers to as her fiancé, except that I can't just accept this at face value, because they haven't shown me any engagement documents, and there's no way I can just trust information from someone in the DMH system, wait, you say there's no such thing as engagement documents? Well in that case..." I can't fathom why the quotes were remotely necessary or appropriate.

"Job"? "JOB"? The only gramatically appropriate use of quotes around this word would be if the person were a prostitute or pimp or drug dealer, and in that case, it clearly isn't appropriate in any type of serious writing. In the case of this guy, why can't we just be pleased that he's doing something with his time that doesn't hurt anyone?

I think the "Kingdom Hall" one offends me the most. Yes, that is in fact what this particular place of worship is called. It does not need to be in quotes. Do you remember that part of ethics class where you learned that if you're not familiar with your client's culture, you get familiar with it? A quick google search would tell you that this is indeed a legitimate place to worship. Hell, even if the person reports that they attend the local Adifjidalofeliv Eudfkmgushdsldn, does it matter if you or I approve of the place?

Next time I get a record like this, I think I'm going to send a reply addressed to the "director of the school" or the "nursing supervisor." Or putting people's credentials in quotes. Or possibly their names.


Suldog said...

Well, I'd argue that "drug dealer" is definitely a job - I was one, many moons ago - but I understand the overall point.

Actually, I just stopped by to tell you that you made my morning with the "female cortexes" photo over at U-Hub. Hilarious.

eeka said...

Oh, sure it's a job. Just a job that, if I were mentioning it in professional writing, I'd clarify that the person was making a living and also putting him/herself at risk of arrest and/or harm. It would be a bit neglectful if I just wrote "he is employed." I'd accomplish this through clarification though, not sarcastic quotes. Just like they told me in preschool*, I'd USE MY WORDS!

OMG I hadn't seen the photo on UH until you pointed it out. Thanks! I have the photo up on my wall at work, which causes my boss to wonder whether all paper towels are excluded, or just female ones.

[* I seem to recall also being told "use your words!" a few times in high school and college as well...]

Molly said...

"Adifjidalofeliv Eudfkmgushdsldn"


Ryan Charisma said...

So just so we're all on the same page.

you feel that in many cases the quotation marks are used as a judgment?

and this piece on your blog is what?

that's right...a judgment.

hmmmm. that's a very Repuplican thing to do.

ooops I just judged!

eeka said...

Hey Ryan, thanks for your comment. I can't tell whether you're being serious, but just to clarify for the peanut gallery...

I've not ever said that all judgment is a bad thing. Judgment, discrimination, and generalization are all parts of the cognitive process that are impossible to avoid. These things are not inherently bad.

In terms of the more colloquial "judgment," that is, forming opinions about behaviors, I think it's definitely appropriate and necessary to form opinions on some behaviors we observe. But I don't think it serves any constructive purpose for a clinician to decide that a person with a disability doesn't have the capacity or the right to choose his or her own friends, fiancé, job, etc. I've made some pretty bad choices in terms of relationships and jobs and whatnot, as I'm sure we all have, but they were my choices to make. No one went around referring to my "job" or my "girlfriend" as if I weren't a full human who was capable of making decisions about the roles people play in my life. This is largely because I don't have a label. But every day I see people who have labels treated very differently than I'd be treated if I behaved in the same way. I don't like this kind of judgment. I do think clinicians need to use, well, judgment in deciding what we do and don't say to and about people.

Colleen said...

Just tripped upon your "blog" by following some "links" :-).

Wonder what my therapist's "notes" read....

"Molly" said...

People have, however, referred to our "marriage", which is just as offensive as the examples you cite, and it's for the same reason...some people think there's something fundamentally wrong with Teh Gay and therefore we can't possibly exercise proper judgment.

So "there".

2x said...

I don't know if you're likely to see a new comment on such an old article, but just in case you do, I think you'll like this site:
The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks

eeka said...

Heya 2x. My comments get e-mailed to me, so, yep, saw it!

I love that blog. And this one:

The juvalamu site has actually been up since I was in college (I graduated in '00). At that time I worked in an inclusive preschool, and the assistant director was, well, uh, the written word wasn't her strong point.

We had a "first aide kit" up on the wall in the office, notes saying to "please" be sure to "lock all doors" every night, and so forth. A couple of us would make jokes about her quote marks outside of work, but other than that, what are you really going to do? You don't just up and give someone feedback on their punctuation usage, particularly when you're only seeing it on really informal stuff like hand-written signs in an office. It isn't like her errors were making her signs incomprehensible or anything, right?

Oh, but then, finally, a teachable moment came along! The assistant director put up a notice saying that there was a "mandatory" staff meeting. Guess what about half of the staff did? Yep, we didn't show up. When asked, we explained how we'd assumed the quotes indicated sarcasm or irony, as in, the meeting was to fulfill a state requirement or something, but they weren't going to actually take attendance.

Kind of assholish of me looking back on it, especially since it could have been a nice opportunity to just explain to her why it might be ambiguous and suggest that she use an underline or something to make sure everyone attended.

Nonetheless still kind of funny though. ;o)

Anonymous said...

From a lover of quotation marks, you might enjoy the following---


The following website summarizes over 500 U.S. court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah's Witness Parents, including 350 cases where the JW Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions for their dying children:


The following website summarizes over 500 lawsuits filed by Jehovah's Witnesses against their Employers, incidents involving problem JW Employees, and other secret JW "history" court cases: