WordBird Tip: Scare Quotes
What the Heck Are Those?
Why They’re Used
These are called scare quotes, because they look like you’re quoting someone else on the subject. What you’re really doing is indicating that you’re not really sure the word is appropriate to the situation.
You might be unsure of the word, or maybe you’ve heard someone else use it in this situation. Maybe you don’t like the use of the word to describe something. You could just be sarcastic, suggesting that men’s rights activists have very “liberal” values. This indicates to the listener or reader that you think the opposite is true—that MRAs have very conservative values.
The Implications of Scare Quotes
Doubling Up, Doubling Down
For the most part, you don’t need to employ scare quotes or so-called very often. Both should be employed sparingly in your writing, since they begin to lose impact on the reader if they’re used over and over again.
Your piece becomes tedious and tiresome if so-called and scare quotes are overused. Read the following sentence and tell me how effective it is: The “president” applauded the “men’s rights activists” for their “liberal” values and “progressive” thinking on issues about “gender.”
Yeah. The first instance isn’t too bad. By the second or third set of scare quotes, the reader is fatigued. You’re making me question everything. It’s tedious to read and even more tedious to think about.
The sentence would be better off if I prefaced it with some sort of comment indicating how skeptical I am of the situation: A particularly laughable moment was when the so-called president applauded the men’s rights activists on what he termed their “liberal values and progressive thinking” on issues about “gender.”
Couched that way, the sentence still employs scare quotes and so-called, but the terms “laughable” tell you exactly what I think, and using the direct quote prefaced with “what he termed” indicates I don’t necessarily agree with this statement.
Differentiating from Real Quotes
How do you tell the difference between scare quotes and actual quotations? In the example above, I used scare quotes to describe the MRAs’ values (“liberal” and “progressive”), and then seemed to quote directly from the president: “liberal values and progressive thinking.”
There’s no visual cue to show which usage is which. The second instance could easily be either scare quotes or an actual quotation.
Generally speaking, scare quotes are used around a single word or phrase, and they’re not usually directly attributed to a source. In the second example, it’s likely the phrase “liberal values and progressive thinking” is a direct quote, since it’s attributed to the president.
In the first version, it’s more likely I’m using scare quotes.
A Useful Convention
In sum, scare quotes can be a useful convention to help you voice dissent in your writing. So long as you use them properly and sparingly, they can be an effective addition in your writer’s toolkit.