10/09/2012 12:30 EDT | Updated 12/09/2012 05:12 EST

If You Can't Say the N-Word, Use Quotes?


Maybe Spike Lee was on to something.

On the release some 15 years ago of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Spike Lee counted 38 instances of the use of the "N Word." Spike, quite understandably, took offense and wondered aloud as to Tarantino's motivation:

"I will say it again and again. I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino's excessive use of the n-word... It's just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word."

Last week, the Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson dredged up a pre-Presidency video of Barack Obama giving a speech to a largely African-American audience in which he employs a noticeable African-American cadence and accent, claiming that it was evidence of race divisiveness: a Hawaiian-born, private school-bred President selectively turning it on in front of black audiences.

Andrew Sullivan, blogger for The Daily Beast, has devoted his last few columns exploring Obama's "implosion" in his first televised debate with Mitt Romney. Sullivan has been eager to find a reason as to why Obama did not confront Romney with the now infamous "47 per cent" audio. In speculating that Obama may have been rattled by the release a few days earlier of Carlson's Obama tape, Sullivan wrote:

If Obama was rattled by Drudge, Carlson and Hannity yelling "Remember he's a nigger!" the days before, then the Romney campaign has gotten into Obama's usually impermeable head.

I'm a reasonably well-educated man. My understanding is that the use of quotation marks -- double quotation marks, mind you -- mean that you are citing words verbatim that came out of the mouths of those to whom you assign those words. Sullivan did not use either single quotation marks nor italics which, to me, would have suggested an idea of what he, Andrew Sullivan, felt was in the hearts of these men; instead, he used double quotation marks.

I assume the column passed muster with The Daily Beast's editors.

Am I wrong in my understanding of the rules of grammar? If so, I will stand corrected. However, my cursory investigation via Google and Wikipedia suggests that there is room to manoeuvre when single quotation marks are employed in expressing ideas but not double quotation marks. One site that came up in the Google search cites Judith Butcher the author of Copy-Editing as follows: "e.g. double quotation marks for speech and single quotation marks for thoughts."

The use of double quotation marks is unambiguous: it means you are quoting someone directly.

By utilizing the double quotation marks, Sullivan has assigned the "N Word" to three individuals. I myself had to read the quote twice in order to determine what was going on. I concluded that the probability that all three gentlemen said the exact same words was unlikely and that it was Sullivan's own idea of what they felt and not what they said. However, is it possible that other readers will reach a different conclusion?

At the very least, Sullivan has seen fit to speculate as to what is in the hearts of Messrs. Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity. It is, therefore, only fair that we speculate on what was in Sullivan's heart when he decided to assign use of the "N Word" to them.

Sullivan has used his blog -- which attracts a substantial readership -- as a forum in which he can safely employ a word that he, Andrew Sullivan, would like to use but cannot. Instead, he cheaply reverts to using the word by proxy: assigning to others a word he himself would like to use.

Sound crazy? Out of left field? Perhaps. But no less crazy than including in double quotation marks words he assigns to those he disagrees with.