Scare Quotes Are Not All That Scary

There’s a time and place for every punctuation mark. Using any of them excessively or incorrectly is, well, just plain scary. In fact, there’s a style for punctuating a word or phrase that you are using in a nontraditional way: scare quotes.

Occasionally you will use a word in a nonstandard way. You may want to note that you’re using it as slang or to convey irony or sarcasm. Setting the word off in quotation marks tells the reader “I know this isn’t the way you normally understand this word.” Or “This is not a term I came up with.”

For example:

  • The commissioner’s platform of infrastructure “investment” didn’t fool astute voters; he lost by ten percentage points.  (The writer uses investment as a euphemism for tax increase.)
  • Joe and his “harem” showed up at the game just in time for the tip-off. (Harem is used as slang or irony here, not in the traditional meaning of the word.)

Scare quotes are very useful in making clear your “different” meaning. We sometimes mimic these written quotes when speaking by making quote marks with our fingers, to imply the same thing.

Once you’ve alerted readers that you’re using the term as slang, euphemism, or another nontraditional usage, there’s no need to continue setting it off with quotation marks if you need to keep referring to that word or term. Readers are pretty smart; they will get it. Continuing to use the quotation marks will be scary. Trust me.

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  1. I’ve always felt like the quotes appear juvenile and that we should use italics instead. They serve the same function to set off the word or phrase, but not sure that both are acceptable.

    What do you think?

    1. Well, Chicago style advocates this usage. Italics can mean other things. Words referred to as words are italicized: “The word love (in italics, but my comment won’t show that formatting) is overused.” So if you used scare quotes in this instance, one would wonder just what you really mean by “love.” Conversely, what you suggest could cause a reverse problem: implying the word doesn’t have an “other intended” meaning but is only being emphasized or noted as a word. Does that make sense?

      1. I wouldn’t wonder just what was meant by ‘love’ if scare quote were used because of the word ‘word’ before ‘love’. 😉 If it’s not possible to use italics, then scare quotes could perform that function.

  2. Not to mention irritating, like the rabbit-ear finger gesture to denote quotes! A nice pithy posting. As Jack says – juvenile. I use italics but in moderation.

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