Scare Quotes Should Be Scarce Quotes

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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Many writers—professionals and creators of casual composition alike—employ a form of emphasis that is usually unnecessary and often clumsily intrusive. Scare quotes, pairs of quotation marks placed around a word or phrase for emphasis, are valid when writers frame wording they are using ironically or mockingly, when they wish to imply that the enclosed word or words are not valid, or to communicate that they are reporting but not endorsing a term or expression. In any case, by using scare quotes, writers are making a statement and therefore calling attention not only to the wording but also to themselves.

However, the use of scare quotes to superfluously bracket slang or figurative language is a hallmark of amateurish prose, and anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a writer should avoid this misuse of a tool that is best employed in appropriate circumstances and in moderation. Examples of extraneous scare quotes follow:

The tech industry has a history of hiring so-called “booth babes” to attract passersby at big trade shows.

So-called and scare quotes are redundant, so employ one form of emphasis or the other, but not both: “The tech industry has a history of hiring so-called booth babes to attract passersby at big trade shows” or “The tech industry has a history of hiring “booth babes” to attract passersby at big trade shows.” (Because many people consider the phrase “booth babes” demeaning, it is probably better to employ so-called, which exonerates the writer, who is merely reporting the term and attitudes behind it, not suggesting his or or her approval of the term.)

A “shoot the messenger” environment is a toxic environment.

Metaphorical phrases need no special emphasis (but the figurative wording, a phrasal adjective, requires connecting hyphens): “A shoot-the-messenger environment is a toxic environment.”

There are things organizations can do in the meantime to “hit the ground running.”

Again, phrases that refer to nonliteral actions (as here, where no impact, surface, or speedy perambulation actually occurs) require no quotation marks: “There are things organizations can do in the meantime to hit the ground running.”

Online crime will continue to “follow the money” and attempt to disrupt legitimate payment processes or divert digital funds in order to take advantage of the next online crime wave.

The figurative phrase “follow the money” is understood as such and need not enclosed in quotation marks for emphasis: “Online crime will continue to follow the money and attempt to disrupt legitimate payment processes or divert digital funds in order to take advantage of the next online crime wave.”

Manufacturers that have so far taken a “wait and see” approach with big-sata analytics and similar digital innovations have the benefit of learning from the missteps of early adopters.

“Wait and see” requires no special emphasis, though because it is a phrasal adjective modifying approach, it should be hyphenated: “Manufacturers that have so far taken a wait-and-see approach with big-data analytics and similar digital innovations have the benefit of learning from the missteps of early adopters.”

In a rapidly changing environment, this behavior creates lethal “blind spots” in an organization.

Readers understand that the reference to blind spots does not pertain literally to the sense of sight, so the phrase does not need to be emphasized to signal its figurative use: “In a rapidly changing environment, this behavior creates lethal blind spots in an organization.”

This action was intended to purge “black money,” or illegal cash holdings, from its financial system.

When a potentially unfamiliar term is introduced with a gloss (a brief parenthetical definition), as here, quotation marks should not frame the word or phrase: “This action was intended to purge black money, or illegal cash holdings, from its financial system.”

The government action to remove these notes from circulation (known as “demonetarization”) voided most of the cash in circulation.

Again, a term introduced with a definition requires no emphasis: “The government action to remove these notes from circulation (known as demonetarization) voided most of the cash in circulation.”

The NASA mission’s lead scientist described the asteroid, known as “16 Psyche,” as the remnant of the core of a planet.

Introduction of a proper name does not merit enclosure of the term in quotation marks: “The NASA mission’s lead scientist described the asteroid, known as 16 Psyche, as the remnant of the core of a planet.”

Her new band, “Tempest,” has just released its debut album.

Again, proper names have no need for framing quotation marks: “Her new band, Tempest, has just released its debut album.”

A related, and also regrettable, use of scare quotes is frequently seen in advertisements and signs—when, for example, one sees “Sale” or the name of a product in quotation marks, as if to say, “This sale is not real” or “These ‘widgets’ are not actual widgets.”)

So, how does one use scare quotes appropriately? Examples follow:

“He ignores women he considers unattractive, and he talked to me, so I guess that means I’m ‘hot.’”

“Evidently, in this upwardly mobile, uptight neighborhood, that is not ‘proper’ behavior.”

“This strategy is reminiscent of the ‘pacification’ of a village achieved by bombing the hell out of it.”

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2 Responses to “Scare Quotes Should Be Scarce Quotes”

  • DeGalantha

    Each pair of scare quotes brings to my mind ironic quotation marks Nazi and Stalinist propaganda loved so much. (Read Victor Klemperer’s book ‘The Language of the Third Reich. LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii. A Philologist’s Notebook’; German: LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen. Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin 1947). The overabundance of ironic quotation marks turned the stuff into a irritating string of tiresome monkeyish gibes. I wonder why writers thought folks would appreciate it.
    Don’s use scare quotes if you don’t want to sound both smart-alecky and stupid at the same time, like Dr. Joseph Goebbels or Ilya Ehrenburg.

  • Marie

    Your examples at the end of the article of the proper use of scare quotes is helpful but all the examples are of scare quotes within quotes. What about when not used within quotes? Can you provide examples?

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