Friday, May 23, 2014

Pet peeve: quotation marks around names

"Ripley" "jumps" out of a "box". 
This week I received a referral letter from a specialist about a procedure performed on one of my patients. The work-up on this patient was nothing short of the gold standard, and the care was excellent. But the letter repeatedly referred to the patient (let's call her Fluffy) as "Fluffy". Not Fluffy. Not Fluff-miester. "Fluffy". In quotation marks. In every instance.

They didn't address me as "Dr Anne" or "Anne", not was it signed by the "specialist". So why this unnecessary quotation marks around the animal's name?

During my undergraduate years I worked in at a major supermarket chain. Someone who worked in the signage department was quotation mark obsessed. Thus we never had a sale on bread, it was always a "sale" on "bread". Makes you wonder - why the need for quotation marks? Is it really a sale? And is that really bread they are selling? I saw customers laugh as they read signs drawing their attention to the  "Fresh" mince or "Meat" pies.

Used appropriately, quotation marks indicate dialogue or speech, or indeed to distinguish a quotation from the rest of the text. Over time, quotation marks have been used to denote "irony, emphasis and exception", according to this article from The Guardian.

Let's say I send you an email including the comment, that you are my best friend, you might feel chuffed (or not as the case may be). That changes if I write that you are my "best" friend. Or "best" "friend". The internet is full of examples of misused quotation marks (e.g. here or here).

To refer to a patient's name, such as "Phil", adds a bizarre emphasis, a pause, that makes you wonder - is the letter-writer really thinking that the patient is worthy of a name, or do they think they are simply humouring the owners by treating it as a real pet? I'm not suggesting in this case that the author of the referral letter was of the view that pet names are silly or frivolous. I got the very strong impression that the quotation marks were automated by whatever software she was using. 

Maybe it seems like a minor, niggly point to some - but I actually think its worth a mention. Would someone who read this letter take note and question the specialist's beliefs about the status of animals? Maybe they would. 

So here is our statement: SAT takes the position that proper names (of non-humans and humans alike) do not require quotation marks - unless we want to suggest they are an alias or pseudonym, and even then that is questionable.

What are your thoughts? Is this petty or does it have profound implications? Has someone ever referred to your "loved one" thus? And how did you interpret it?


  1. It's very much worth a mention, because the quotation marks were the first thing I saw under Ripley’s photograph! Some people think quotation marks are for emphasis – no, they are not. My first reaction to the story was the author didn’t think the patient was worthy of a name, any name. Second reaction was that he simply thought the patient wasn’t fluffy enough to have the name Fluffy. But, then, would a vet bother with such issues? Confusing. Punctuation is never a minor point, it determines meaning. Here’s an example of a comma doing its bit:
    1) Let’s eat, Fluffy!
    2) Let’s eat Fluffy!
    (Don’t eat your pets, use a comma.)

  2. I'm a vet nurse, and this common practice of putting quotation marks around a pet's name irks me beyond belief. It implies that giving a name to a piece of property (as the law regards pets currently) is a cute but frivolous affectation; that they aren't worthy of having a real name like a human being. The only semi-decent reason for it that I've ever been given is that the quotation marks are used to differentiate the name of the animal from the name of the owner on the file and on Rx labels, in order to avoid confusion, especially if the animal has a human-like name. (Which opens up a whole new debate). Nonetheless, I despise the practice. Thanks for your excellent article!

  3. As a student in the field, I'm taught to use quotes if the animal has a human-like name, so that it's clear that it is the pet, not the person, that is being referred to

  4. I Google searched "why old people put names in quotations", because I've seen it a lot with the elderly. I just attended my grandma's 82nd birthday, and a card she received from another elderly woman had her given name in quotations inside the letter. I haven't seen this practice done as much with pet names as otherwise with names or random words, seemingly for emphasis. I've never understood what started such a silly practice.


Add comments here: