5 Categories of Unnecessary Scare Quotes

By Mark Nichol

Each of the sentences in this post demonstrates a distinct example of superfluous use of quotation marks to call attention to a word or phrase. The discussion following each example explains why the scare quotes are extraneous.

1. Companies need to reevaluate, and perhaps “retrofit,” their existing programs.

Retrofit is not being used in its literal sense of “renovating to enhance structural resistance to earthquake damage,” but analogous use of the word does not require scare quotes, which are helpful only when the analogy is obscure: “Companies need to reevaluate, and perhaps retrofit, their existing programs.”

2. Such a strategy must include thinking “outside the box.”

Idiomatic phrases, like single words used as nonliteral analogies, are generally understood as such and do not require special emphasis: “Such a strategy must include thinking outside the box.”

3. So-called “softer” impediments often require as much attention as technical hurdles.

So-called signals that a word or phrase is not being used in a literal or customary sense. Scare quotes signal that a word or phrase is not being used in a literal or customary sense. Redundancy is not necessary, nor is it required: “So-called softer impediments often require as much attention as technical hurdles.”

4. Information should be restricted to those individuals designated as having a “need to know.”

Words and phrases adopted from specialized contexts—otherwise known as jargon (such an introduction of a concept as this doesn’t merit quotation marks, either)—are either sufficiently transparent in meaning that they don’t need emphasis or definition or should be omitted in favor of clear wording; in this case, a phrase originating in the milieu of classified government documents is self-evident: “Information should be restricted to those individuals designated as having a need to know.”

5. It is imperative to understand “what to do” as well as “what not to do.”

Here, the writer invites the reader to glean the key phrases in the sentence, but the gist of the statement is obvious, and the scare quotes are distracting and not at all helpful: “It is imperative to understand what to do as well as what not to do.”

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2 Responses to “5 Categories of Unnecessary Scare Quotes”

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is an entirely different kind of “unnecessary scare quotes”. Why was this not compared and contrasted? Examples:
    “Dr. S of the XYZ Research Institute says that global warming is a fallacy and that he can prove it.”
    His statement, indirectly quoted, does frighten a minority of people.
    The Reverend Dr. Moon said, “Following the incoming Comet ABC is an armada of alien invaders set to invade the Earth and cannibalize us.” Statements like this do frighten a minority of people. The rest of us just laugh!
    “They are keeping Hitler’s brain alive in a vat of chemicals in Antarctica. He decided that South America was not far enough away.”
    These are “scare quotes.” It is probably unfortunate that so many writers want to use the word “quotes” in the place of “quotations”. “Quotes” is a verb, but “quotations” is a noun, but they do not know what the difference is.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have had college students question me about certain sentences. I replied, “Well, that is in the imperative mood.” They asked, “What’s that?” I got the same question when I said about a different sentence, “Well, that is in the subjunctive mood.”
    They did not understand that when something is in the subjunctive mood, you cannot believe everything that you read or hear!

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