Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scare Quotes

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin
(Originally written October 31, 2010)

It's Halloween, so I figured this topic was damned appropriate: Scare Quotes.

What is a Scare Quote? Here is the definition from Wikipedia:
Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a single word or phrase to indicate that the word or phrase does not signify its literal or conventional meaning. In contrast to the nominal typographic purpose of quotation marks, the enclosed word(s) are not necessarily quoted from another source.
In other words, the phrase enclosed in quotes is not dialog and is not a quotation of someone else's words. Instead, the phrase is quoted to indicate that its meaning is not to be taken literally by the reader. The intention of the writer is to indicate sarcasm, skepticism, derision, irony, or doubt over accuracy.

Scare quotes usually show the attitude of the writer, or of the point-of-view character, about a certain subject.
Some examples:
  • She demonstrated her "knowledge" on the subject by citing Oprah.
  • The driver turned on a hip-hop station and pounded his hands against the steering wheel in time to the "music".
  • A reporter began to recite his "objective" account of the incident.
  • Our Great Imperious Leader signed an order giving the military full authority to engage in "population control" of undesirables.

When writing scare quotes, you use the same quotation marks that occur throughout your manuscript when writing dialog or including literal, quoted material. That is, if your dialog uses single quotes ('He's dead, Jim.'), then scare quotes use the same. If double quotes ("Take that, sucker."), then use doubles. Single quotes tend to be British formatting, doubles for American. Of course, when inside dialog, the opposite quote mark is used ("Oh, your 'music' is really great.").

An aspect of scare quotes that I consider controversial is this: does sentence-ending punctuation belong inside a scare quote as it does in dialog? Consider these examples:

Dialog: "Take that, sucker."
Scare quote: He hated Eddie's "music".
Versus: He hated Eddie's "music."

In the case of dialog, the ending period is clearly part of the dialog, and thus belongs inside the quotes. For the scare quote, the ending period is not part of the sarcasm, but simply terminates the narrator's sentence. Strict grammarians insist that, for American English, the punctuation must reside inside the quotes. To me, it just plain looks wrong; the punctuation is not part of the quoted phrase. And, one can find all over the place where authors do place the punctuation outside the quotes. So, it seems to me that this has now entered common usage.

One last thing. Some assert that writers shouldn't use scare quotes at all. The quotes can be replaced by phrases such as so-called, supposed, purported, self-styled, or alleged.


Wikipedia, Scare quotes
Guide to Punctuation, University of Sussex (UK English), Scare Quotes
The Chronicle of Higher Education,What's 'Scary' About Scare Quotes
The Victorian Web,Punctuation Matters and Matters of Punctuation
Writer's Relief , Odds and Ends: Scare Quotes, Exclamation Points, Almost, and Plural Compounds


dan said...

sir, help me i am reseraching WHO coined the term scare quotes and when and why the word SCARE there? any info? google me at ''dan bloom + scare quotes''

dan said...


Scare quotes trending upward?

by Dan Bloom

As a newspaper reporter and editor for over 40 years, in America and Asia, I've been following the
ascent of the somewhat meaningless punctuation term "scare quotes" as it moved from academia to
the popular culture. Two years ago, Tom Bartlett, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote a blog post about ''scare quotes'' titled "What’s ‘Scary’ About Scare Quotes? (May 14, 2010), and a CHE post this past April by David Silbey titled "Why Historians Never Trust Their 'Sources.' " (April 18. 2012) delved, briefly, into the scare quotes ''issue''.

With his blog titled "Why Historians Never Trust Their "Sources," and after putting the word "sources" in the title in so-called scare quotes, Silbey noted in his very first sentence, "I couldn't resist the scare quotes, sorry."

Bartlett's 2010 piece was about Greil Marcus explaining to anyone who would listen why he was fed up with
scare quotes. In explaining how he and his co-editor put an essay collection together that year, Marcus was quoted
by Bartlett as saying: '"When we looked at all the essays together, we found a narrative
disease. Somehow, through the writing of each piece, its editing by
the member of the editorial board who had assigned it and reeled it
in, then editing by a heroic copy editor, then by Werner, or myself,
and finally by both of us, we found piece after piece littered with
little typographical markings that like insect tracks were bleeding
the life out of description, argument, dramatization. It was like a
horror movie, when the demons that have previously appeared only in
dreams and glimpses by a child that her parents ignored are suddenly
everywhere, everywhere you look, and you can’t escape. Scare quotes."

You probably ''know'' what a "scare quote" is, although you might call it something
else, but I'll bet you don't know who coined it, or when, or why the word "scare" was thrown in as part of the coinage.
According to "sources," the term might have been coined sometime in the 1950s in an academic setting that
mostly revolved at first around philosophy professors in Britain. In addition to being called scare quotes, other terms have
arisen, including sneer quotes, horror quotes and distancing quotes.

Eric Nessel said...

Good info.