Tag Archive - scare quotes

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.