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Quotation Marks "Madness"

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post

Here below the Mason-Dixon Line there exists an irrepressible impulse to over-decorate, a congenital tendency to accessorize everything from sofas to ponytails. Even language gets gussied up Down South. Participles are draped with armloads of adjectives and — regardless of content — delivered with a smile. Consequently, catching somebody’s true drift can be like excavating a mountain of throw pillows in search of the couch.

There also is a tendency to garnish writing with punctuation, syntax be damned. In addition to brigades of exclamation points tacked onto sentences willy-nilly, random terms sometimes appear capitalized mid-sentence for no Discernible reason. Quotation marks (‘unaccompanied’ as well as “in pairs”) appear with arbitrary and confusing frequency. It is a mysterious form of graffiti grammar that leaves the bewildered reader pondering the source of the citation. Who exactly is being quoted when a motel offers “free” cable?

Maybe because quotation marks are supposed to represent attributive expressions, their generous use is just preemptive — a form of literary indemnification against potential charges of plagiarism. In any case, the rule of Southern thumb seems to be: “Quote whenever possible.” Or more accurately: “Quote” “whenever” “possible.”

Certain phrases, however, should cause alarm when bookended by these symbols. I was at a grocery store where the milk was proclaimed (quotes theirs): “Fresh.” The handwritten announcement gave me pause. Did the merchants just think the word was too plain and needed a pair of fashionable mini-brackets like matching hair bows? Or was this a notational wink; a hidden message from management signifying one should forget the straw and grab a fork?

Restaurateurs are also prone to gaudy grammatical flourishes. For the record — I don’t think a hot “turkey” sandwich with home-style “gravy” sounds all that appetizing.

The inclination to flowerify can result in a variety of mysterious expressions woven into the dialect. A good example is “Bless his heart.” The accurate connotation of this phrase can be established only through intense study of context clues. Depending on intonation and eyebrow arch it can mean “the poor dear” or “the stupid moron.” Similarly, the term “hoot” (as in “You’re such a hoot”) doesn’t necessarily translate into lunch invitations.

Serious legislative consideration ought to be given to providing an instructional pamphlet for new residents, something along the lines of “Southern English as a Second Language.” Then when a transplant goes to convert his driver’s license he could take a hidden-meaning proficiency test. I would have benefited from such guidance. When I moved to Virginia a lot of the nuance was lost on me. In response to a neighbor who said, “Your yard is just as green as it can be!” I said, “Isn’t it great?” What he really meant was “Mow your lawn.” (The homeowners association translated in an official letter of warning.)

This can be confusing in the workplace, too. I once hyperventilated prior to witnessing a planned confrontation with an unsuspecting under-performer. But the meeting was replete with tight- gripped handshakes and enthusiastic good manners. I was utterly relieved at the change in plans. Then the man resigned. He’d been eviscerated, Southern style. I just missed it.

Unlike New England, where a conversationalist might live and die waiting for some form of positive verbal feedback, the congenial people of the South usually feel compelled to say something. Sometimes anything. For quite a while a traffic sign on I-64 flashed the message SIGN NOT OPERATIONAL. Obviously, a blank screen caused etiquette anxiety for someone in the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Even the walls speak here. A notice in a Charlottesville doctor’s office implores, “Please don’t stick pins in the mattress!” Which I suppose is a useful tip.

And a good idea for a business start-up. Imagine the cottage industry that might grow out of this discomfort with silence. Exhortations could be printed and packaged in gold frames with advice like: Refrain from putting lima beans up your nose! And: Please check shoes for toilet paper!

Clearly, communication appeals for embellishment the way an unmade bed cries out to Martha Stewart. (Bless her heart.) But the South’s sugar-coated niceties and grammatical pomp might be toned down just a little. At least enough to impart the true message. As Robert Browning wrote, “Less is more.” Quotes mine.

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