Scare quotes

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Scare quotes, shudder quotes,[1][2] or sneer quotes[3][4][5] are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to signal that a term is being used in a nonstandard, ironic, or otherwise special sense.[6] They may be used to imply that a particular expression is not necessarily how the author would have worded a concept.[7] Scare quotes may serve a function similar to verbally preceding a phrase with the expression "so-called",[8] they may imply skepticism or disagreement, or that the writer intends an opposite sense of the words enclosed in quotes.[9]

Another completely different definition uses the term scare quotes to mean words or phrases that are quoted in order to scare the reader, or, in a political campaign, to smear an opposing candidate.[10][11][12] Scare quotes have also been defined as expressions or passages in a work of literature that cause an estrangement or cause something to seem unfamiliar in a supernatural way.[10]


The term "scare quotes" as it refers specifically to the punctuation marks dates back to at least 1956, when it was used in an essay "Aristotle and the Sea Battle" written by G.E.M. Anscombe, and published in Mind; a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy.[13] The use of a graphic symbol on a text to indicate irony or dubiousness of a word or phrase, goes back much further: Authors of ancient Greece used a mark called a dipple for that purpose.[14] Beginning in the 1990s the use of scare quotes suddenly became very widespread.[15][16][17] Postmodernist authors in particular have theorized about bracketing punctuation including scare quotes and have found reasons for their frequent use in their writings.[2][18][19][20][21][22]

The other meaning of the term, that refers to the words or phrases being quoted, dates back to before 1946.[12][23][24] The Oxford English Dictionary notes the use of the terms "scare-line" and "scare-head", the latter as early as 1888; these terms would today be defined as "scare quotes" in this other sense.[25]


Scare quotes are used in this example:

  • Some "groupies" were following the band.

The scare quotes here may indicate that the word is not one the writer would normally use, or, depending on the context, they might indicate that the writer has an opinion that there is something dubious about the idea of groupies or its application to these people.[26]

Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. Scare quotes are used to imply an element of doubt or ambiguity regarding the words or ideas with in the marks,[27] or even outright contempt.[28] They can indicate that a word or phrase is being purposely misused[29] or that the writer isn’t persuaded by what is being said,[30] and they can allow the writer to deny responsibility for what is being reported.[28]

The term scare quotes may be confusing because of the word scare. An author may use scare quotes not to convey alarm, but to signal a semantic quibble. Scare quotes may suggest or create a problematization with the words set in quotes.[31][32]


Writers are encouraged to be cautious when using scare quotes, because they can be an evasive way of expression that will distance the writer, and leave the reader wondering if the author means what he or she is saying.[33]

Editor Greil Marcus, in a talk given at Case Western Reserve University, said "scare quotes are the enemy." They "kill narrative, they kill story-telling ... They are a writer’s assault on his or her own words."[34] Scare quotes have been described as "ubiquitous", and the use of them as expressing distrust in truth, reality, facts, reason and objectivity.[16] 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."[35]

For example, author Paul Warmington points out that when the word race is constantly placed in scare quotes, but not any other social construct, it has the effect of trivializing the issue and the reality that people are experiencing.[36]

The philosopher David Stove examined the use of scare quotes in recent philosophy to "neutralize" or "suspend" success-words, "words importing more or less cognitive achievement, such as "knowledge", "discovery", "facts", "verified", "understanding", "explanation", "solution (of a problem)"".[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Boolos, George. Logic, Logic, and Logic. Harvard University Press (1999) ISBN 9780674537675 page 400.
  2. ^ a b Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin (2014) ISBN 9780698170308
  3. ^ Miles, Murray, Inroads: Paths in Ancient and Modern Western Philosophy, University of Toronto Press (2003) ISBN 9780802085313 page 134
  4. ^ Herbert, Trevor. Music in Words : A Guide to Researching and Writing about Music. Oxford University Press (2009) ISBN 9780199706150 page 126
  5. ^ Horn, Barbara. Copy-editing. The Publishing Training Center. (2008) page 68
  6. ^ University of Chicago Press staff. Chicago Manual of Style. University of Chicago Press (2010). page 365
  7. ^ Hart, Carol. A History of the Novel in Ants. SpringStreet Books (2010) ISBN 9780979520433 page 246
  8. ^ Trask, Larry (1997), "Scare Quotes", University of Sussex Guide to Punctuation (University of Sussex) 
  9. ^ Siegal, Allan M. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Three Rivers Press (1999) ISBN 9780812963892 page 280
  10. ^ a b Harries, Martin. Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment. Stanford University Press (2000) ISBN 9780804736213 page 6
  11. ^ Kaplan, Alice Yeager. Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life; Volume 36 of Theory and History of Literature. University of Minnesota Press (1986) ISBN 9781452901497
  12. ^ a b McWilliams, Carey (1946), Southern California: An Island on the Land, p. 298, ISBN 9780879050078 
  13. ^ Anscombe, G.E.M. “Aristotle and the Sea Battle.” Mind; a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy. Volume lxv. No. 257. January 1956.
  14. ^ Finnegan, Ruth. Why Do We Quote?: The Culture and History of Quotation. Open Book Publishers (2011) ISBN 9781906924331 page 86
  15. ^ Howells, Richard, editor. Outrage: Art, Controversy, and Society. Palgrave Macmillan. (2012) ISBN 9780230350168 page 89
  16. ^ a b Haack, Susan, editor. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays. University of Chicago Press (2000) ISBN 9780226311371 page 202
  17. ^ Perlman, Merrill. “Scare” Tactics. Columbia Journalism Review. 28 January 2013.
  18. ^ Nash, Christopher. The Unravelling of the Postmodern Mind. Edinburgh University Press. (2001) ISBN 9780748612154 page 92
  19. ^ Saguaro, Shelley. Garden Plots: The Politics and Poetics of Gardens. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. (2006) ISBN 9780754637530 page 62
  20. ^ Olson, Gary A. Worsham, Lynn. Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise. SUNY Press (2004) ISBN 9780791462133 page 18
  21. ^ Protevi, John. Time and Exteriority: Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida. Bucknell University Press (1994) page 120. ISBN 9780838752296
  22. ^ Elmer, Johathan. Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe. Stanford University Press (1995) ISBN 9780804725415 page 34
  23. ^ Harries, Martin. Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment. Stanford University Press (2000) ISBN 9780804736213 page 6
  24. ^ Kaplan, Alice Yeager. Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life; Volume 36 of Theory and History of Literature. University of Minnesota Press (1986) ISBN 9781452901497
  25. ^ Craigie, W. A.; Onions, C. T. (1933). A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles: Introduction, Supplement, and Bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  26. ^ McArthur, Thomas Burns. McArthur, Roshan. Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press (2005) ISBN 9780192806376
  27. ^ Stove, David C. Against the Idols of the Age. Transaction Publishers (1999) ISBN 9781412816649 page xxv — xxvi
  28. ^ a b Trask, Robert Lawrence. Say what You Mean!: A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style and Usage. David R. Godine Publisher (2005) ISBN 9781567922639 page 228
  29. ^ Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. The Modern Language Association of America (1995) ISBN 0-87352-565-5 page 56
  30. ^ Fogarty, Mignon. The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Macmillan (2009) ISBN 9781429964401 page 207
  31. ^ Davidson, Arnold. I. The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts. Harvard University Press (2004) ISBN 9780674013704 page 87 — 88.
  32. ^ Sharma, Nandita Rani. Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada. University of Toronto Press (2006) ISBN 9781551930589 page 169
  33. ^ Kemp, Gary. What is this thing called Philosophy of Language? Routledge (2013) ISBN 9781135084851 page xxii
  34. ^ Marcus, Greil. "Greil Marcus - Notes on the Making of A New Literary History of America". Adapted from a talk given at Case Western Reserve University on April 10, 2010.
  35. ^ Jonathan Chait, "Scared Yet?, The New Republic, Dec. 31, 2008.
  36. ^ Warmington, Paul. Black British Intellectuals and Education: Multiculturalism’s Hidden History. Routledge (2014) ISBN 9781317752363
  37. ^ Stove, David (1982). Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists. Oxford: Pergamon Press, Part 1, Chapter 1. Reprinted as Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism (1998) Macleay Press. ISBN 1 876492 01 5