The following is an extract from CNN. I'm wondering if it's advisable to keep the quotation marks around the word "only" for emphasis.

For the holidays, McDonald’s is giving away free meals for life. Well, sort of.

Beginning December 5, every order completed in the McDonald’s app for at least $1 will enter customers into a contest to win a McGold Card. Three winners will get a special card that earns them free McDonald’s for life. Plus, each winner will get three extra cards to give away for a total of 12 cards being won.

The McGold Card has been around for years, with some heavy hitters reportedly holding them, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and actor Rob Lowe. In 2018, McDonald’s issued a few gold cards during a contest, but the winner was eligible to get “only” two free meals a week for 50 years. That rule applies to this year’s promotion too, which ends on December 25.

Valinsky, J. (2022, November 29). McDonald's is giving people the chance to win free food for life. CNN Business.


2 Answers 2


Don't use quotation marks for emphasis. CNN isn't doing so here.

If you say

Mary will get £50000. John will get only £10000.

It means that £10000 is small. But suppose you feel that it is actually a large amount of money. You could ironically insert quote marks:

John will get "only" £10000.

You are ironically indicating that although this is less than Mary will get, it is still a large amount of money in absolute terms. It doesn't emphasise the word "only" it marks it as not really meaning "only".

The quotation marks here mark the irony. The winner of this prize will get two free meals per week for fifty years. That is a big prize, so it is ironic to say "only ..."

  • 6
    The irony is that "only" means the prize is considered small, but the author feels it is big. That is irony.
    – James K
    Mar 27, 2023 at 5:05
  • 7
    Do you expect to get free food every day? I have to pay for food. So free food twice a week is not "only". And even if you don't get the irony - that is what the author wants to imply. The quote marks here are not for emphasis.
    – James K
    Mar 27, 2023 at 6:28
  • 6
    @Apollyon you're free to make up your own mind as to whether the irony succeeds or fails, but James K is correct about what CNN is trying to do here. The scare quotes indicate that the author does think it's actually a big prize.
    – Toby Y.
    Mar 27, 2023 at 7:41
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    @Apollyon that would be the meaning if the sentence was written without the quotes.
    – Toby Y.
    Mar 27, 2023 at 8:50
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    @Apollyon As a life-long native english speaker -- It seems the author is quoting the McGold Card documentation, which uses the term "only two free meals per week" or some similar phrasing. So "only" is both a quote -- because no reason to use the word if it's not a direct quote -- and being called out as ironic because two free meals per week is hardly a small benefit. Not that it's all the food you ever need, but that as prizes go it's a fairly large deal. Mar 27, 2023 at 14:54

Quotation marks are commonly used in inline text for a variety of reasons:

  • To mark a specific word/phrase as a literal quotation,
  • To indicate that the use of the word is being used in a sarcastic or otherwise ironic way — as James answered, this is definitely the use being intended by CNN here,
  • To indicate that the word/phrase is being used non-literally to stand in for a figurative or euphemistic meaning.

In standard English they are not generally used for emphasis. However, you do occasionally see such uses "in the wild"*, but they tend to appear in contexts where you would not necessarily expect well-written text. In general this usage is stigmatised and cannot be recommended for use in any context, formal or informal; as shown by people finding humour from such uses on the subreddit /r/UnnecessaryQuotes, and this segment from Dave Gorman's Modern Life Is Goodish.

* I swear when I started writing this sentence I was going to use that expression without even thinking about it, then I realised as I was typing it was a perfect example of point 3 above!

  • Does the ironic use presuppose the literal quotation use? Is it the case that someone must have used an expression so that another person can indicate irony by using quotes around it?
    – Apollyon
    Mar 28, 2023 at 3:44
  • @Apollyon That's a good point. I don't think it's a necessity, though I suspect this might be how the usage originally arose. You could for instance when watching a bad comedy routine where you don't think anything was funny, but where it was following the classic formula of there being a straight man and a funny man, say 'he was the "funny" one' to indicate he was playing that part but you didn't think he was actually funny...
    – Muzer
    Mar 28, 2023 at 10:01

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