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I feel the need to clear this up, for the benefit of humanity:  Please don’t use air-quotes unless you are being ironic

Air-quotes can be funny or sarcastic when used well, but their misuse is making them really annoying.  I feel it is important for me to set the record straight so air-quotes can stick around for a while and then die a natural death when the time is right. 

The directions for air-quotes are really quite simple:

  • It is fine to use air-quotes when you are saying one thing but mean something else; air-quotes convey sarcasm. 
  • It is not fine to use air-quotes when what you are saying is, literally, what you are saying.

To illustrate my point, let me share a couple of examples of the proper use of air-quotes:

Example 1.A.  When your friend is on his way to hand out fliers in a hot dog costume, you say to him:  Hurry up, you don’t want to be late for your “job.”  In this case, you have employed air-quotes as an efficient way to let your friend know that you don’t consider walking the street dressed as barbecue food to be an actual career choice; the air-quotes are how he knows what you really intended to say.  They probably made him feel bad about himself in the process, but that’s between you and him.

Example 1.B.  When a guy who is a complete Mama’s boy is going to visit his mother, you tell him:  Say hi to your “girlfriend.”  Here you are conveying that this guy’s relationship with his mother is too close to be considered in the normal range of mother-son relationships, but you are using air-quotes to signal that you know he isn’t actually dating his mom.

On the flip side, following are some examples of the improper use of air-quotes:

Example 2.A.  You say, OK, it’s time to get back to “work,” but you are, in fact, getting back to work.  Hopefully the mistake here is obvious.  If  you are saying what you mean, which is that you took a break but now have to finish doing what you are being paid to do, then you are prohibited from using air-quotes.  Now, if you are wearing a hot dog costume when you say this, then you are fine (at least as far as air-quotes go) as explained in Example 1.A.

Example 2.B.  You say, Nice “face”, to someone when you are really talking about his or her face.  Nice face is an awesome insult in that it typically takes the recipient a second or two to recognize that he or she has been insulted.  In this case, the use of air-quotes actually lessens the impact of the insult, as well as puts the user in violation of the air-quote guidance as stated above.

You can help me in this effort.  The next time someone inappropriately invokes air-quoting, you need to call that person out.  Try this with the second example above…

Nice “face”?!  Are you talking about this?  (Point to your face.)  Because if you are, I think you meant to just say: Nice face, sans air-quotes, dumb ass.

You don’t have to say it as as angry as I did above, but it helps.

I fear I may be too late, because even as I am writing this I am realizing that I have pretty much given up on air-quotes already.  I am not sure that air-quotes can be saved.  Air-quotes have gone the way of the slang term “D.L.,” which at one point was only used by those in the know, but is now often spoken by people in their 60s (no offense, Mom and Dad) and on commercials.  Since air-quotes are almost over, I guess I will have to resort to using inflection to communicate the same sarcasm that I could have much more easily conveyed with air quotes, as in “Say hi to your mom.”  It’s disappointing, but I guess what’s done is done.

P.S.  Just out of curiosity, I went to Wikipedia to see what it says there about air-quotes, lest I am inadvertently being unoriginal by writing this post.  I confirmed that I am fine, at least in regard to having an original thought, and in addition I got a wonderful gift in the form of the photo accompanying the air-quotes entry.  Priceless.

UPDATE:  My friend Joannie shared this awesome website with real-life examples of people using printed quotes improperly:  It’s hilarious.


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