3 Erroneous Uses of Scare Quotes
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 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.”