When in Doubt, Leave Scare Quotes Out

By Mark Nichol

When quotation marks are employed to suggest the irony or dubious validity of a word or phrase, or the writer’s remove from credit or blame for its use, they are called scare quotes. However, other uses—to introduce a new or unfamiliar term, to signal that a term is not being used in its traditional or literal sense, or to provide emphasis—are usually heavy-handed and seldom aid in clarity of composition. The sentences below, accompanied by discussions and revisions, provide examples of extraneous use of scare quotes.

1. Next, we will discuss the so-called “high-impact, low-likelihood” risks.

The phrase so-called serves the same function as scare quotes, so using both in a sentence is redundant: “Next, we will discuss the so-called high-impact, low-likelihood risks.” However, be just as cautious in the use of so-called as in employment of scare quotes; the term is rarely useful and therefore unlikely to be necessary.

In this case, it would be better to identify who characterizes the risks that way (“Next, we will discuss what John Smith calls high-impact, low-likelihood risks”), to use passive construction to soften the introduction by writing something like “Next, we will discuss what are called high-impact, low-likelihood risks,” or to omit any qualification at all: “Next, we will discuss the high-impact, low-likelihood risks.”

2. Risk management should be an embedded process that ultimately becomes part of the company’s “DNA.”

Here, DNA is being used figuratively to refer to something that is a fundamental part of an organization, but the fact that it is not being employed literally does not justify scare quotes; the metaphorical use is clear: “Risk management should be an embedded process that ultimately becomes part of the company’s DNA.”

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

Although the phrases “what to do” and “what not to do” are being presented as categorical concepts conceivably spoken or written as part of an effort to inform, this usage does not merit any emphasis: “It is imperative to understand what to do as well as what not to do.”

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