3 Types of Scare Quotes

By Mark Nichol

Framing a word or phrase in scare quotes, or quotation marks used for emphasis, can be an effective tool for signaling editorial distance—that is, subtly and succinctly clarifying that the word or phrase is not of the writer’s choosing or that it is euphemistic or otherwise specious or spurious. However, too often, scare quotes are gratuitous or redundant, as shown in the examples below:

1. They must look to the senior management to help them acquire this “big picture” view.

This sentence features gratuitous use of scare quotes—gratuitous, because the writer seems to mistakenly assume that any idiom, no matter how quotidian, must be enclosed in quotation marks to signal that the meaning is not literal. The marks are unnecessary with most established idiom: “They must look to the senior management to help them acquire this big-picture view.”

2. The guidelines set forth the separate responsibilities for management and so-called “front-line” units.

Here, the scare quotes are redundant. The quotation marks serve to inform the reader that the writer did not generate a word or phrase; rather, he or she is merely reporting a usage that someone else employed. But so-called signals this fact to the reader, so it is superfluous to use scare quotes as well. When such redundancy occurs, the writer (or editor) should opt to delete the scare quotes and retain so-called: “The guidelines set forth the separate responsibilities for management and so-called front-line units.”

3. That same budget funded quote-unquote “crisis pregnancy centers.”

Using the phrase quote-unquote in speech is understandable, because scare quotes are not visible in speech—another approach is to use air quotes, hand gestures that suggest quotation marks—but in writing, doing so is an intrusive alternative to so-called: “That same budget funded so-called crisis pregnancy centers.” (In this case, however, because the writer is criticizing the use of the euphemistic phrase “crisis pregnancy centers” for a type of facility associated with deceptive advertising and misleading information, use of scare quotes in lieu of so-called is also appropriate.)

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