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WordBird Tip: Scare Quotes

WordBird Tip: Scare Quotes

Lets talk about scare quotes for a minute.

What the Heck Are Those?

They’re the quotation marks you put around words that youre trying to use sarcastically or draw attention to as dubious usage. Maybe its slang that you dont quite agree with or a word you dont think actually applies.
In face-to-face conversation with another person, youd probably crunch your fingers up as you said the word, indicating quotation marks (these suckers: “/”) around the word. Or perhaps you say “quote/unquote” (which indicates youre opening and then closing the quotation marks around the word). Or perhaps you do both to really stress your point.

Why They’re Used

These are called scare quotes, because they look like youre quoting someone else on the subject. What youre really doing is indicating that youre not really sure the word is appropriate to the situation.

You might be unsure of the word, or maybe youve heard someone else use it in this situation. Maybe you dont like the use of the word to describe something. You could just be sarcastic, suggesting that mens 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.

Mimicking Quotations


Okay, but I still don’t actually like you.

Some people erroneously call these “air quotes,” which refers to the motion when speaking. The proper terminology when used in writing is indeed “scare quotes,” because youre not actually quoting a third party on this subject.
Quotation marks usually indicate the material is quoted from a third party—it’s their words directly. Scare quotes are not used to quote directly. As discussed, theyre used to draw attention to dubious usage.

The Implications of Scare Quotes

When you use scare quotes around a word, it makes it seem as though youre questioning the use of the word. We could put the word “hipsters” in quotation marks, which could make it seem as though we were questioning our friends who think they’re hipsters, but don’t actually embody the definition of a hipster.
Or perhaps we put the word “sulfur” in quotation marks. It seems as though were questioning whether or not sulfur is an actual compound, a thing that exists. Once its in scare quotes, were questioning the very concept of sulfur.
If you dont want to draw attention to a word as being a dubious term for something, dont put it in scare quotes. For example, if youre actually talking about hipsters, dont write “hipsters.”

Doubling Up, Doubling Down

Another no-no is using quotation marks with the adjective so-called. So-called implies the scare quotes and vice versa. Scare quotes become unnecessary when so-called is used, and so-called is unnecessary when scare quotes are used.
This mistake is incredibly common. Even editors and proofreaders dont pick up on it very often, even though its pretty clearly laid out in Chicago Manual of Style. If you actually think about it for a few minutes, it makes perfect sense—using both of them is, well, redundant. If I say something is so-called, it implies that I don’t think the term is necessarily a good one. I might question it’s legitimacy or whether it really applies: “The so-called president.”
If I put the word president in quotation marks–the “president”–the implications are the same. I’m calling the term into question, just the same as if I used “so-called.” Therefore, I don’t ever need to use both scare quotes and so-called for the same term.

Limiting Usage

For the most part, you dont 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 theyre 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.

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