Scare Quotes

The use of quotation marks can be extended to cases which are not exactly direct quotations. Here is an example:

Linguists sometimes employ a technique they call "inverted reconstruction".

The phrase in quote marks is not a quotation from anyone in particular, but merely a term which is used by some people — in this case, linguists. What the writer is doing here is distancing himself from the term in quotes. That is, he's saying "Look, that's what they call it. I'm not responsible for this term." In this case, there is no suggestion that the writer disapproves of the phrase in quotes, but very often there is a suggestion of disapproval:

The Institute for Personal Knowledge is now offering a course in "self-awareness exercises".

Once again, the writer's quotes mean "this is their term, not mine", but this time there is definitely a hint of a sneer: the writer is implying that, although the Institute may call their course "self-awareness exercises", what they're really offering to do is to take your money in exchange for a lot of hot air.

Quotation marks used in this way are informally called scare quotes. Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase from which you, the writer, wish to distance yourself because you consider that word or phrase to be odd or inappropriate for some reason. Possibly you regard it as too colloquial for formal writing; possibly you think it's unfamiliar or mysterious; possibly you consider it to be inaccurate or misleading; possibly you believe it's just plain wrong. Quite often scare quotes are used to express irony or sarcasm:

The Serbs are closing in on the "safe haven" of Goražde.

The point here is that the town has been officially declared a safe haven by the UN, whereas in fact, as the quote marks make clear, it is anything but safe. Here's another example:

Sharon Stone made dozens of "adult films" before getting her Hollywood break.

The phrase `adult films' is the industry's conventional label for pornographic films, and here the writer is showing that she recognizes this phrase as nothing more than a dishonest euphemism.

It is important to realize this distancing effect of scare quotes. Quotation marks are not properly used merely in order to draw attention to words, and all those pubs which declare We Sell "Traditional Pub Food" are unwittingly suggesting to a literate reader that they are in fact serving up microwaved sludge.

Some writers perhaps take the use of scare quotes a little too far:

I have just been "ripped off" by my insurance company.

Here the writer is doing something rather odd: she is using the phrase `ripped off', but at the same time she is showing her distaste for this phrase by wrapping it in quotes. Perhaps she regards it as too slangy, or as too American. Using scare quotes like this is the orthographic equivalent of holding the phrase at arm's length with one hand and pinching your nose with the other.

I can't really approve of scare quotes used in this way. If you think a word is appropriate, then use it, without any quotes; if you think it's not appropriate, then don't use it, unless you specifically want to be ironic. Simultaneously using a word and showing that you don't approve of it will only make you sound like an antiquated fuddy-duddy.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex