I read an article, which said something like this:

They had 11 puppies and sold 4 puppies and seven were left. Then they wrote an article in the newspaper “FREE TO GOOD HOME-one very ugly and six other pretty puppies”. By the end of the next day, we had given the “ugly” puppy away seven times.

Why was "ugly" in quotation marks?

  • 8
    As an American, my view is there is somewhat a culture of either a self-congratulatory or genuine concern for an animal seen with pity. In this case, the 'ugly' puppy. By labeling each consecutive puppy as ugly, the person is increasing the chance the prospective owner will feel pity for the puppy and adopt. Therefore, a person who has this cultural insight would read the sentence as a joke. The person selling the puppy and audience reading the article knows that each puppy isn't ugly, but was just an advertising trick.
    – RomaH
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 22:16
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    In this case, the quotes are used in their original sense: To indicate something that someone else said. Hereby the writer distances himself from the labeling as ugly. Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 17:29
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    @ZsoltSzilagy - are you sure? I thought it was clear that puppies aren't actually ugly at all, they are just being marketed that way, so that's why ugly is in quotation marks, because it's false.
    – Davor
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 13:27

4 Answers 4


Quotes here mean that the puppies given away were labeled as "ugly" despite not being any uglier than expected from a puppy.

You cannot give away one puppy seven times. So, as there were seven puppies left to give away, the quotes around "ugly" and the fact that an "ugly" puppy was given away seven times make it clear that people were specifically asking for the ugly puppy, and were given whatever puppy the owner grabbed that time. There were no particularly ugly or pretty puppies - it's just that the advertisement generated interest in the public for a puppy, specifically for an "ugly" puppy.

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    I thought something similar: each person who came to adopt a puppy came predisposed to "rescue" the supposedly ugly puppy that others might not adopt, and every one had a different opinion of which puppy that was.
    – chepner
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 18:37
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    This makes much more sense (and is much sweeter) than how I first read it, that they’d given the ugly puppy away seven times, but each time the new owners had come and given it back because they didn’t want it after all. Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 11:50
  • I'm 99% sure this is the intended reading, but just to reassure the OP I feel I should point out that without context this is not immediately clear, even to a native speaker. I can only assume this quotation had some prior context about how people tend to adopt animals for which they feel sympathy, or some such. Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 19:22
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    I do not know why this should not be immediately clear to any native speaker — this is actually a very old joke, IIRC. But more than that, the setup and punchline to the joke follows an even older format that should be familiar to anyone with a classical education. I suspect that the way the world works has simply changed among English speakers?
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 5:10
  • I can just hear it, "Oh, hey, you picked the ugly puppy!!!"
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 16:54

The puppy labelled is not ugly, but "ugly" (with quotations). The quotations used here are like air quotes, which are used to draw attention to a word or phrase.

In this case, the quotations around "ugly" is being used to show that the label is not objectively true — it's just a superficial label for the experiment.

  • Air quotes are specifically the gesture made physically with one's hand(s) while speaking (as your linked definition says); I think you perhaps mean scare quotes (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scare%20quotes).
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 22:45
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    I find it interesting how often random people on the internet think they know better what a writer meant than the writer himself. I really doubt that myacorn meant to write “scare quotes”, as their definition is incongruent with the explanation he gave us here: they “draw attention to a word or phrase“.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 23:43
  • @Dúthomhas Scare quotes do draw attention but I'm happy to accept that that wasn't what is meant; they are however definitely not air quotes.
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 23:29
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    @dbmag9 Yes, myacorn was making a comparison to air quotes, since they serve the same purpose in spoken language as the quotes do in this case of written language.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 3:24

As in dialog, quotes here are used to indicate that was what was said. The buyer, or the narrator, or both, referred to the puppy as ugly.

In general, this is used to indicate the same meaning as the term "so-called" -- people refer to this as that, even though I do not personally agree.


They mean that the puppy had been wrongly called “ugly.” The context here is that they demonstrated that none of the puppies were ugly at all. Quotes like this mean that the writer is repeating a statement they themselves disagree with. When used to invert a compliment, I’ve heard quotation marks like this called scare quotes.

This might be read out loud as, “The quote-unquote ugly puppy.” In conversation, they could also be indicated by an “air-quotes” gesture, that is, extending and curling the index and middle fingers of both hands twice with the palm facing outward and the other fingers clenched. (You’ve probably seen this, and it should be easy to find examples.) Or the speaker could just say “ugly” in a sarcastic tone of voice.

All of those mean that the speaker is being sarcastic, and would not be used otherwise. “The complaint describes the environment as, quote, ‘toxic,’ unquote,” (or “end quote”) is the most common way to verbally quote another person’s exact words neutrally, when you cannot use punctuation marks, but must be explicit about where the exact quotation begins and ends. If it’s obvious from context or doesn’t matter, you wouldn’t pronounce the quotation marks at all, other than maybe a pause.

Another way to say the same thing would be, “the so-called ugly puppy.”

  • The quotes mean that the writer is in on the joke, and expects the reader to be as well by highlighting the fact that the puppy was called “ugly” when it was not. See Kreiri’s answer.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 23:40
  • @Dúthomhas I don’t think that contradicts what I wrote? Scare quotes are often used to indicate sarcasm or disagreement, without there being a joke.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 23:59
  • We are in agreement, then. Like your edit; it clarifies your thoughts.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 2:35

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