3 Erroneous Uses of Scare Quotes

By Mark Nichol

Rules are made to be broken, but more often they are made to be followed, because violation of those rules, in writing as in any other human endeavor, often leads to unintended consequences. One case is the careless use of quotation marks for emphasis.

Scare quotes, as quotation marks employed for this purpose are called, are often used to call out nonstandard or unusual terms, or merely to introduce a word or phrase. However, although this strategy used to be common, scare quotes have taken on a new role that has largely, at least among careful writers, supplanted the old technique: Now, they are better employed to convey derision, irony, or skepticism.

For example, a writer who describes how “the institute offers workshops in ‘self-awareness therapy’” is widely presumed not to be gently preparing the reader for the appearance of an unfamiliar phrase; more likely, they are calling attention to what they feel is preciously New Age-y terminology.

Meanwhile, the statement “The Pentagon’s strategy of ‘pacification’ certainly did make things quieter in the neighborhood” comments on the evasive military euphemism, while “The ‘new’ model strikes me as less sophisticated than the old one” calls attention to an unjustified adjective.

Here are three types of superfluous usage of scare quotes:

1. The astronomers reported Tuesday that they had combined more than 6,000 observations from three telescopes to detect the system of
“exoplanets.”

Exoplanets is a term that has only recently entered the general vocabulary, but neologism is not a criterion for use of scare quotes; simply introduce the word, define it, and move on: “The astronomers reported Tuesday that they had combined more than 6,000 observations from three telescopes to detect the system of exoplanets.” (In the article from which this sentence is taken, a definition of exoplanet follows the statement.)

2. They engaged in listening exercises and musical analysis so as to better understand the “musical DNA” of their favorite songs.
If you use an established term in an unfamiliar but analogous sense, trust readers to make the connection; don’t bracket the term in scare quotes: “They engaged in listening exercises and musical analysis so as to better understand the musical DNA of their favorite songs.”

3. So-called “notification laws” require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.
Never employ scare quotes around a term introduced by the phrase so-called. Yes, you may want to signal to readers your dissatisfaction with the term, but so-called performs that function, so scare quotes are redundant: “So-called notification laws require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.”

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7 Responses to “3 Erroneous Uses of Scare Quotes”

  • Michael W. Perry

    I’d add a fourth item to your list, one that might be called ‘smug quotes.’ Using them, writers attempt to assert their moral superiority over those they disagree with. I’ve nothing against writers having a different POV. That’s their right. I’m just irritated that they can’t be more open and straightforward about it. Smug quotes strike me as cowardly and underhanded.

    Think of it as like your #3 about using “so-called” plus scare quotes. You suggest dropping the scare quotes. I’m irritated by those who use scare quotes instead of “so-called.” If they dislike a term, I’d rather they be more open about it. They should tell us why they dislike the term rather than assume their reasons are obvious to all but the clueless.

    Also, because smug quotes are so small, they encourage writers to use them repeatedly, a practice that makes me want to shout, “Enough already. You’ve made your point.”

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  • dan bloom

    One Response to “3 Erroneous Uses of Scare Quotes”
    Michael W. Perry on January 7, 2013 7:41 pm
    I’d add a fourth item to your list, one that might be called ‘smug quotes.’ Using them, writers attempt to assert their moral superiority over those they disagree with. I’ve nothing against writers having a different POV. That’s their right. I’m just irritated that they can’t be more open and straightforward about it. Smug quotes strike me as cowardly and underhanded.

    Think of it as like your #3 about using “so-called” plus scare quotes. You suggest dropping the scare quotes. I’m irritated by those who use scare quotes instead of “so-called.” If they dislike a term, I’d rather they be more open about it. They should tell us why they dislike the term rather than assume their reasons are obvious to all but the clueless.

    Also, because smug quotes are so small, they encourage writers to use them repeatedly, a practice that makes me want to shout, “Enough already. You’ve made your point.”

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  • Solo Atkinson

    Here is my take on your examples. Mostly I disagree.

    In the first one, it’s not at all incorrect to use quotes around “exoplanets”. But I do agree that they should be left off here. I find them distracting or condescending in this example.

    In the second example, I assume that the term “musical DNA” comes from the people doing the listening and musical analysis, not from the author of the sentence. In that case I’d leave them in. For me, here, they express some of the distancing that is the purpose of scare quotes, but it’s respectful, not ironic.

    In the third example, I agree that it’s redundant to do both, but it’s exactly what I’d use when I want to be super-sarcastic. So I think doubling up like this serves a purpose. Of course, it might go a too far for the author of example #3 if he wants to be seen as a sober journalist and not a partisan.

  • Doug Alexander

    When posting in situations where bold and italic are nor available, using quotes for emphasis, or guiding the reader to group a long conceptual phrase within a sentence, is indispensable to me.

  • Judith

    This whole bloody thing is ridiculous. I’ve been editing for 30-odd years and this is the first time I heard of “scare quotes” or had it elucidated for me when and how they may be used. I’ll use quotations marks as I please and when I please, thank you very much, and you can keep your so-called “scare quotes” (and yes, the use of the quotation marks with “so-called” is quite deliberate here).

  • Padmanabha Rao

    Judith, are you also implying the closing bracket should precede the period (in your last sentence?)

  • Anna

    It scares and saddens me that someone who had been editing for 30-odd years had never heard of scare quotes. Judith might want to take a grammar course (and pay attention to the punctuation lessons this time!)

    It’s not just millennials who are ruining our language, it seems.

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