Scare quotes (also called shudder quotes, sneer quotes, and quibble marks) are quotation marks that writers place around a word or phrase to signal that they are using it in an ironic, referential, or otherwise non-standard sense.[where?] Scare quotes may indicate that the author is using someone else's term, similar to preceding a phrase with the expression "so-called"; they may imply skepticism or disagreement, belief that the words are misused, or that the writer intends a meaning opposite to the words enclosed in quotes. Whether quotation marks are considered scare quotes depends on context because scare quotes are not visually different from actual quotations. The use of scare quotes is sometimes discouraged in formal or academic writing.
Elizabeth Anscombe coined the term scare quotes as it refers to punctuation marks in 1956 in an essay titled "Aristotle and the Sea Battle", published in Mind. The use of a graphic symbol on an expression to indicate irony or dubiousness goes back much further: Authors of ancient Greece used a mark called a diple periestigmene for that purpose. Beginning in the 1990s, the use of scare quotes suddenly became very widespread. Postmodernist authors in particular have theorized about bracketing punctuation, including scare quotes, and have found reasons for their frequent use in their writings. In 2014, Slate declared hashtags to be "the new scare quotes" in the sense that both are used for "announcing distance". Just like scare quotes, hashtags such as #firstworldproblems or #YOLO signal that the phrase is not one's own.
Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. They can imply doubt or ambiguity in words or ideas within the marks, or even outright contempt. They can indicate that a writer is purposely misusing a word or phrase or that the writer is unpersuaded by the text in quotes, and they can help the writer deny responsibility for the quote. The Atlantic writes: "to put terms like 'identity politics' or 'rape culture' or, yes, 'alt-right' in scare quotes is ... to make, in that placement, a political declaration." In general, the punctuation expresses distance between the writer and the quote.
The scare quotes could indicate that the word is not one the writer would normally use, or that the writer thinks there is something dubious about the word groupies or its application to these people. The exact meaning of the scare quotes is not clear without further context.
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.
Some experts encourage writers to avoid scare quotes because they can distance the writer and confuse the reader.
Editor Greil Marcus, in a talk at Case Western Reserve University, described scare quotes as "the enemy", adding that they "kill narrative, they kill story-telling . . . They are a writer's assault on his or her own words." Scare quotes have been described as ubiquitous, and the use of them as expressing distrust in truth, reality, facts, reason and objectivity.
Political commentator Jonathan Chait wrote in The New Republic,
The scare quote is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you're insinuating.
In 1982, philosopher David Stove examined the trend of using scare quotes in philosophy as a means of neutralizing or suspending words that imply cognitive achievement, such as knowledge or discovery.
Words in scare quotes can better be discussed by writing text to explicitly support the insinuation they inexplicitly suggest. Nevertheless, their defenders may argue that they can function as a shorthand for identifying propaganda and disinformation, especially of concepts that are widely used.
In spoken conversation, a stand-in for scare quotes is a hand gesture known as air quotes or finger quotes, which mimics quotation marks. A speaker may alternatively say "quote" before and "unquote" after quoted words, or say "quote unquote" before or after the quoted words, or pause before and emphasize the parts in quotes. These spoken methods are also used for literal and conventional quotes.
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