Scare quotes and how to use them

This article has appeared in other places around the web before coming to rest here. The latest incarnation was on helium.com, a site that paid people to write on a per-view basis, but the site is now shutting down. A few articles on the blog are salvage like this one.

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Scare quotes are an often misunderstood technique used in writing, mainly reserved for use in factual work rather than fiction. They are used to invoke a sense of sneering, a a lack of faith in the phrase used or perhaps a feeling of irony.

You may have seen people when speaking draw quotes in the air, and it’s generally recognised that what they mean is “this word is the word that other people use for this, but I wouldn’t sully myself with such a silly term”. Often the scare quoted word or phrase could be prefaced with the phrase “so-called” to obtain the same effect.

Take a look at the difference in these sentences:

1) The police used high-tech devices in their search.

2) The police used “high-tech” devices in their search.

In the first example we are invited to accept that the police search was carried out in a manner that used advanced devices. In the second, there is a sneer around the concept of “high-tech”. If you were reading it out in the way it were intended then you would use a sarcastic tone on the phrase “high-tech”. The suggestion is that somebody called the devices high-tech, but the author doesn’t buy in to the concept. It would not be a warping of the meaning to, instead, write:

3) The police used so-called high-tech devices in their search.

Sometimes a quoted term is not meant in this way. For example, a newspaper headline might say:

Mobile phone mast dangers “unfounded”.

Almost certainly the word “unfounded” is a direct quote and the point is to show that the author didn’t come up with the word he is using, he is using somebody else’s word. However, in this instance there is some distancing but no trivialising of the term. The author is saying “they used this word, I didn’t”, however the article will almost certainly show a fuller quote, or at the very least tell you who it was that owned the phrase in the first place, who is making the claim that there is no proof. In this case the quotes used are not scare quotes.

Sometimes a cliched phrase may be scare quoted, in a way that implies a nudge and wink to denote there’s a different meaning behind the term used. Take for example:

I was “feeling tired and emotional” last night.

“Tired and emotional” is a common way of saying “rather drunk”, and the quotes here show that there is a deeper meaning that what you see on the surface of the words.

Sometimes scare quotes leak into conversation. This is rather unusual for punctuation – nobody makes a gesture to denote a capital letter or a full stop, but if you see them drawing quotes in the air around a phrase you can take it to be a case of scare quoting in person. A funny thing to note is that often the speaker will wrinkle their nose up as they say the word or phrase. If you read out a sentence with quotes you can make use of this knowledge to determine whether the quotes are scare quotes or not. If you read it out and wrinkle your nose at the appropriate time your voice will change slightly – you will automatically read the word in a way that emphasises it a little and makes it sound derisory. Does it make sense that way? Then that may well have been the intention.

Unfortunately, people have figured out the tone of voice that goes with scare quotes and some of them have misunderstood it. You’ll notice that as you use that tone the word or phrase stands out. Some people think that giving a word emphasis is always a positive thing and many signs are written attempting to make use of this knowledge that quotes mean emphasis, resulting in horrendous examples such as:

We serve “hot” soup.

Used properly scare quotes can be powerful and meaningful. Although your reader may not think too hard about them they will generally pick up the meaning. Just be judicious in your usage and remember that you wouldn’t want to be reading out your entire piece with your nose all screwed up, so don’t overdo it.

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