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, 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.


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 It’s one that covers a nugget of information that I’ve had to explain to non-technical people regularly.


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.

Making an interview into an article

Many years ago, I helped to run the Red Dwarf Fan Club. I was primarily involved in editing the fanzine, a job I feel I did far better than my successor, and overall pretty damn well. One of the juciest bits of content we could run was an interview with one of the stars. I realised quite early on that transcripts lacked punch, and subsequently wrote a guide to turning an interview into an article. This piece of writing sat around on for many years before being brought here.


Part of showing the strength of your writing comes from the editing you impose upon yourself. This is particularly true in the case of interviews.

It is very common these days to see the transcripts of online chats touted as interviews, or to see interviews presented in the question-answer-question-answer style. The problem with this is that it doesn’t demonstrate that you are a good writer, only that you are capable of performing an interview. Don’t assume that interview technique isn’t important – it is, but it’s only part of the story.

What you should remember is that your audience was not there for the interview. Every word the subject spoke may well be important but there is more to the situation than that. A reader will probably not usually want to read an interview because they are a fan of your writing rather most interview readers will have been lured into reading by wanting to know something about the person being interviewed. Keep this foremost in your mind when you write your piece. Add information to your writing that the words your subject speaks don’t tell. Were they rushed when they answered? Did they speak quickly? Were they cheerful? Tired? Confused? What are the surroundings like? Does your subject pause during the interview to take a sip of water, or to answer a call? What do all these details suggest about them? Are they busy? Glad to talk to you or wishing to end the conversation as soon as possible? Do they volunteer information you haven’t directly asked for? Do they answer questions at length or succinctly?

In order to produce a good interview piece, rather than a mediocre one, it is a good idea to capture the moments as best you can. Sometimes you will need to rely purely on your memory and a few choice quotes you jot down. In such instances be careful not to put words into your interviewee’s mouth – only put down as quotes those things you know they definitely said.

Wherever possible take along a tape recorder, or maybe even a video recorder. These devices will give you ample opportunity to review what was said and to think about it at length. It might be worth doing a direct transcript from your source material to give you a good idea of what was said and to let you have something to cut and paste from and build your article around.

People don’t speak in complete sentences. They say “er” and “um” all over the place. Ignore these foibles unless you’re trying to make your subject look foolish. Often your subject will go off at a tangent – don’t worry about it. Summarise the answers and tangential stories and ignore the coughs, stutters and pauses.

Don’t just report what was said. Tell a story. Construct your piece so that it has a logical beginning and end and a strong mid section. You may want to jiggle around the chronology of what was said and link it with some background information about the subject, or to discard entirely a line of questioning that produced no information that isn’t already common knowledge, or went on for a while but wasn’t especially interesting.

When you are conducting your interview you should have a vague idea of what you want to write, but be willing to change it all if things seem to be going in a better and more fruitful direction. If you have the luxury of time don’t be afraid to let your subject ramble. You may be bored by the story of something inconsequential, but later you can review and analyse every word of it, and you may find a crucial nugget of information amidst the irrelevancies. Often you will get good article fodder by asking your subject a question to which you already know the answer. Sometimes you will be surprised and find that the assumed answer wasn’t correct, other times you will have a direct quote on the detail you’re asking about. Never fear silence when you are interviewing. People often feel

uncomfortable when nothing is said and speak to fill the gap – leave that to the interviewee since their words are more important than yours.

Avoid asking closed questions – questions with answers like “yes” or “no” or “three” as suitable responses are almost entirely useless. Don’t ask “Did you expect your single to be a success?”. Ask “What reaction did you expect to your single?” Don’t be afraid to clarify a lengthy answer – under those circumstances it is fine to get a short “yes” or “no” to be sure you’re not going to misrepresent your subject using their own words.

Remember, as you speak you are producing far more words than you would expect. If you record it you will find there is much more said than you would expect during your interview. Even with the recording it can be extremely useful to make notes – jot down which answers were particularly interesting and how you plan to use them. Scribble down an outline if you think it will be useful. Give your subject plenty of attention, though. You need to make them feel mostly at ease with you, and ignoring them while you stare into your reporters notebook is not good interview technique.

As you write your piece you may find that there is more than one story lurking within the interview. If you’re not doing a simple transcription of questions and answers then there is no reason why you can’t use the original source material for as many stories as you want to – especially if you use different quotes and stories from the interview in each piece.

Overall, never let the words tie you down. Don’t fret if there seems to be little in what was said worth reproducing for readers. A successful interview will glean at least a couple of quote-worthy phrases and you can base the rest of your piece on the subject and the encounter rather than the actual words.

Every writer has their own style. Let your style show, engage your reader. Let them feel they are learning something from your article instead of simply hearing the same comments that everyone else who has interviewed your subject has reproduced. Think ahead when you interview, keep a clear head and don’t worry. If you can pull this off you will be producing quality work for readers to enjoy.