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.

Computers: Power and Memory

This article was first written for helium.com. It’s one that covers a nugget of information that I’ve had to explain to non-technical people regularly.

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Do you understand your computer? Many don’t. Often when a computer slows down somebody will suggest that you get more memory. Will that help? Read on to find out.

There are two parts of a computer that can correctly be referred to as “memory”. The first is the RAM and the second is the hard drive. You may hear people refer a number of “gig” or “meg” regarding each of these.

Imagine for a while that you are your computer.

– The closest analogue to the RAM memory is how much that person can remember.
– The most similar thing to the hard drive is a person’s pockets.

A hard drive is used for holding information, it’s a form of storage. The information that goes there is semi-permanent. It will sit around until it is deliberately destroyed. When you put information on your computer it’s like putting a book full of notes into one of your pockets. If you have huge pockets you can store more information and when you run out there’s not much that can be done short of getting clothes with more pockets (which is what you do when you upgrade your hard drive).

RAM is short for “random access memory” and that is how much your computer can remember at once. It’s a more short term type of memory, it’s not really meant for holding things forever. It’s like a you trying to remember a sequence of numbers, or someone’s address or even what six items you need to collect from the kitchen. You may only need this information for a brief time and may not even realise that you are holding the information – it just goes in and out of your head as and when needed.

There is a third kind of memory. This is called “virtual memory” and that is when your computer writes temporary information to the hard drive. This breaks the pattern described above to some extent but the analogy holds true. Suppose you were in a bar and buying drinks for all your friends. You might be able to remember the order but there is a chance that you won’t because there is so much you have to keep in your head at once. If you find yourself in this situation you might scribble down the order and stuff the note into your pocket. Your computer does the exact same thing – it doesn’t want to keep the information forever, but if there’s simply too much to keep in the RAM it will make use of the hard drive.

Sometimes people think that because their computer is running slowly, they need to delete files. This may work if you are very short of space as it will free up extra space for the computer to put its temporary information. The truth is, though, only a small portion of your hard drive is reserved for this kind of use and if you are impinging on that space then the chances are you actually need to upgrade to a bigger hard drive where you can store more permanent information.

If you want to improve the speed of your machine buying extra RAM is often the best way to do it as it lets the computer make more calculations at the same time. Imagine if you could improve your memory so that you needed to write down only a fraction of what you might need to now. Most of what the computer holds in its memory is complicated calculations and the more it can hold at once the more work it can do. Buying RAM can be a tricky business, though, so make sure you know what kind your computer needs. It is an expensive component and if you put in the wrong type it will probably melt!

The final way of upgrading your computer and having it work faster is to purchase a new CPU. The CPU is the computer’s processing unit – that is, its entire brain, rather than just the memory section. It is the bit that takes the information from the memory and performs the calculations and throws the right bits of information back into the memory, performing commands if necessary, such as triggering other hardware or sending information to the graphics card so it can be written to the screen. While you can upgrade this component, it is probably the most expensive part of a machine and it is tricky to replace – adding memory or hard drives just involves swapping or adding parts into slots designed to hold extra bits, but removing the CPU is more like dismantling your machine. If you are finding your CPU isn’t up to the jobs you want it to do it might well be worth investing in a whole new machine instead of upgrading what you have.

A powerful machine will run a combination of a high power CPU with lots of memory. Your hard drive doesn’t directly contribute to how fast and powerful your machine is, although the bigger it is the more you can hold so a good machine will have a large drive, or perhaps more than one.

If you bear this in mind when looking for a new machine or components for your current one then you ought not to go too far wrong.