Scare Quotes

Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to imply that it may not signify its apparent meaning or that it is not necessarily the way the quoting person would express its concept.

Use of the term appears to have arisen at some point during the first half of the 20th century. In books it appears as early as 1946 in ‘Southern California: An Island on the Land’ by Carey McWilliams and in the 1950s in academic literature.

Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. When the enclosed text is a quotation from another source, scare quotes may indicate that the writer does not accept the usage of the phrase (or the phrase itself), that the writer feels its use is potentially ironic, or that the writer feels it is a misnomer. This meaning may serve to distance the writer from the quoted content. If scare quotes are enclosing a word or phrase that does not represent a quotation from another source they may simply serve to alert the reader that the word or phrase is used in an unusual, special, or non-standard way or should be understood to include caveats to the conventional meaning.

Alternatively, material in scare quotes may represent the writer’s concise (but possibly misleading) paraphrasing, characterization, or intentional misrepresentation of statements, concepts, or terms used by a third party. This may be an expression of sarcasm or incredulity, or it may also represent a rhetorical attempt to frame a discussion in the writer’s desired (non-standard) terms (e.g., a circumlocution, an apophasis, or an innuendo). The term scare quotes may be confusing because the word scare implies provocation, yet the term covers emotionally neutral usage as well. In many cases an author uses scare quotes not to convey alarm, but to signal a semantic quibble.

The word ‘normal’ denotes that something is proper or not defective. A writer who puts ‘normal’ in quotation marks may be insinuating that normal is just a point of reference, that it refers to the average. The writer might be arguing that what is normal is not superior in that situation, or that no person could really be called normal in any meaningful way.

The effect of using scare quotes is often similar to prepending a skeptical modifier such as ‘so-called’ or ‘alleged’ to label the quoted word or phrase, to indicate scorn, sarcasm, or irony. Scare quotes may be used to express disagreement with the original speaker’s intended meaning without actually establishing grounds for disagreement or disdain, or without even explicitly acknowledging it. In this type of usage, they are sometimes called ‘sneer quotes.’

Political commentator Jonathan Chait wrote in ‘The New Republic’ that ‘The scare quote is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you’re insinuating.’ Taiwan-based reporter Dan Bloom wrote in ‘The Taipei Times’ that ‘Beijing propaganda officials also use a Western punctuation device (so-called ‘scare-quotes’) to blot out Taiwan’s dignity and geopolitical space.’ Bloom also said that in China, scare quotes in state-controlled media (using double bracket quotes as the Chinese equivalent of quotation marks) are often used to belittle the reality of rival nation Taiwan by putting the names of Taiwan’s leaders and government bodies in double bracket quote marks.

Bloom also wrote an editorial-page article in the ‘China Post’ headlined ”Scare quotes’ having a ‘field day’ in the ‘media,” in which he said that ‘in the long run-up to the American presidential election this coming November 2012, an epidemic of so-called ‘scare quotes’ is turning political punditry and commentary into what might be called ‘a punctuation epidemic.” His article also said that ‘when someone on the left or right doesn’t like the language of the opposing side, the writer often put the words in scare quotes, to signal to the reader that he or she is of a very different opinion, and as a result, nothing gets resolved and only more confusion and noise results.’

However, enclosing a word or phrase in quotes can also convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question. The quotes are used to call attention to a neologism, special terminology (jargon), or a slang usage, or to indicate words or phrases that are descriptive but unusual, colloquial, folksy, startling, humorous, or metaphoric. They may indicate special terminology that should be identified for accuracy’s sake as someone else’s, for example if a term (particularly a controversial term) predates the writer or represents the views of someone else. Some writers prefer italics for this neutral usage, even though italics may easily be mistaken for emphasis (this has been humorously labeled ‘scare italics’). Conversely, neutral quotes may indicate that the word or phrase in quotes has changed in meaning since its usage in the specific instance, especially if the word or phrase has gained a controversial or pejorative meaning.

Style guides generally recommend the avoidance of scare quotes in impartial works, such as in encyclopedia articles or academic discussion. ‘Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense […] They imply ‘This is not my term’ or ‘This is not how the term is usually applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.’

In spoken conversation, a stand-in for scare quotes is a hand gesture known as ‘air quotes’ or ‘finger quotes,’ which mimics the appearance of quotation marks. A speaker may alternatively say ‘quote’ before and ‘unquote’ after the words that he or she wishes to quote ironically, or say ‘quote unquote’ before or after the quoted words, or simply pause before and emphasize the parts in quotes. This spoken method is also used for literal and conventional quotes.


2 Comments to “Scare Quotes”

  1. so finally who coined the term SCARE QUOTES and when and where and why and why the SCARE there?

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