Maybe it would be more useful if I started from the place they know them best: hanging in the air, not on the page. The use of air quotes by children as young as six and seven surprises even a hardened veteran teacher like myself. This is especially true when I consider that one of the earliest lessons I remember getting at teacher school was that we should avoid using sarcasm in our classroom. Kids don't get it, we were told. Or maybe what I mean is, "Kids don't get it." Or perhaps the most accurate depiction of my meaning is, "Kids don't 'get it.'" Notice the single quotation marks set inside the double there. It sets apart the 'get it' from the rest of the quotation. Not only are those the words my instructor used, but their meaning became more specialized with the addition of an additional set of punctuation marks. I might have chosen to write it thus: "Kids don't get it." Those leaning letters suggest that they be heard differently than the rest of the sentence. Italics. Another game changer, at least as far as meaning goes, but I am not aware of a culturally prevalent way of conveying the same meaning that the air quotes have for anything in italics.
Unless you include the eye roll. It is very interesting to me that the use of quotation marks, which used to be a verifiable way to check to see that the exact words that were used by a speaker were taken down directly by the writer is now being used as a device to throw doubt on those very words. Take this headline: Southwest Airlines flight diverted to Denver over "pressurization": media. Those quotation marks around "pressurization." Are they there to make sure that we, the readers, know that someone officially declared the problem with that flight to be pressurization, or should we be taking that assessment with a grain of salt? In the body of the article, this sentence appears: The diversion was blamed on a "pressurization issue," though the statement did not elaborate on the problem. This statement about a statement casts some doubt about the problem on board, primarily with the use of quotation marks. Are we to believe that there may have been some more nefarious goings-on in the sky that are being blamed on "pressurization?" So-called "pressurization?"
How much better would we all be understood without these "backward apostrophes?" I guess "the devil is in the details." And you can quote me on that.