Scare Quotes and Sneer Words

By Mark Nichol

When a writer wishes to call attention to a dubious or specious claim or to a person of questionable honesty, two forms of shorthand are available: scare quotes and sneer words.

Scare quotes are quotation marks framing a word or phrase to call attention to it and point out that the writer does not accept the word or phrase as valid or that the writer is casting aspersions. For example, one might write, “Several ‘experts’ were unable to provide a convincing explanation.” (This sentence mocks the supposed experts for their failure to demonstrate their expertise.) Another use of scare quotes is to point out someone’s disingenuous behavior, as in “She conveniently ‘forgot’ to send an invitation to her sister-in-law.” (These quotation marks indicate that the forgetfulness was feigned.)

An alternate method, one that is necessary in speaking to make one’s point, is to use “quote-unquote.” In writing, of course, this is redundant to the actual use of scare quotes, but it’s used occasionally in an attempt to be droll, as in “I walked in to find him quote-unquote indisposed” to refer to someone who is clearly inebriated.

The second technique, the name of which seems to have been coined by the late language maven William Safire, is to precede a word or phrase with an adjective that indicates the writer’s disdain. One of those sneer words, supposed, appears above to describe an unimpressive demonstrate of expertise. A synonym is purported, meaning “claimed”; would-be, when it modifies a title or description of a person, suggests that that person is merely an aspirant to that achievement, as in “We were unimpressed by the performance of the would-be pop star.” Terms with the same connotation include self-anointed, self-appointed, self-proclaimed, and self-styled.

Various other combinations can provide judgmental commentary. For example, to say that somebody is hand-picked can neutrally indicate that the person has been chosen as another person’s successor, assistant, or confidant, but with carefully crafted context, it can also suggest that the hand-picked person is not necessarily qualified or suitable for the job. Once-powerful, meanwhile, suggests that someone has fallen in status; again, context can make clear that the term is deprecatory.

Writers should take care when using scare quotes and sneer words; they are at best merely informative, possibly humorous, and at worst malicious.

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