Scare quotes

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This article is about the typographic practice. For the use of quotations and headlines to scare readers, see Scare-line.

Scare quotes, shudder quotes,[1][2] or sneer quotes[3][4][5][excessive citations] are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to signal that a term is being used in a non-standard, 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, belief that the words are mis-used, or that the writer intends a meaning opposite to the words enclosed in quotes.[9]


The term "scare quotes" as it refers to the punctuation marks was coined in 1956 by G. E. M. Anscombe in an essay "Aristotle and the Sea Battle" published in Mind; a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy.[10] 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.[11] Beginning in the 1990s the use of scare quotes suddenly became very widespread.[12][13][14][excessive citations] Postmodernist authors in particular have theorized about bracketing punctuation including scare quotes and have found reasons for their frequent use in their writings.[2][15][16][17][18][19][excessive citations]


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.[20]

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,[21] or even outright contempt.[22] They can indicate that a word or phrase is being purposely misused[23] or that the writer isn’t persuaded by what is being said,[24] and they can allow the writer to deny responsibility for what is being reported.[22]

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.[25][26]


Writers are encouraged to be cautious with scare quotes because they can distance the writer and confuse the reader.[27]

Editor Greil Marcus, in a talk given 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."[28] Scare quotes have been described as ubiquitous, and the use of them as expressing distrust in truth, reality, facts, reason and objectivity.[13] 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."[29]

Author Paul Warmington argues that placing the word race, but not any other social construct, in scare quotes has the effect of trivializing the issues of race.[30]

The philosopher David Stove has examined the use of scare quotes in recent philosophy as being able to neutralize or suspend words that suggest cognitive achievement, such as knowledge or discovery.[31]

In speech[edit]

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[32] or simply pause before and emphasize the parts in quotes. This spoken method is also used for literal and conventional quotes.

The Japanese language has a very close spoken (and written) equivalent of scare quotes in the form of the postposition って (tte).

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. ^ Anscombe, G. E. M. "Aristotle and the Sea Battle". Mind; a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy. Volume lxv. No. 257. January 1956.
  11. ^ Finnegan, Ruth. Why Do We Quote?: The Culture and History of Quotation. Open Book Publishers (2011) ISBN 9781906924331 page 86
  12. ^ Howells, Richard, editor. Outrage: Art, Controversy, and Society. Palgrave Macmillan. (2012) ISBN 9780230350168 page 89
  13. ^ a b Haack, Susan, editor. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays. University of Chicago Press (2000) ISBN 9780226311371 page 202
  14. ^ Perlman, Merrill. "Scare" Tactics. Columbia Journalism Review. 28 January 2013.
  15. ^ Nash, Christopher. The Unravelling of the Postmodern Mind. Edinburgh University Press. (2001) ISBN 9780748612154 page 92
  16. ^ Saguaro, Shelley. Garden Plots: The Politics and Poetics of Gardens. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. (2006) ISBN 9780754637530 page 62
  17. ^ Olson, Gary A. Worsham, Lynn. Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise. SUNY Press (2004) ISBN 9780791462133 page 18
  18. ^ Protevi, John. Time and Exteriority: Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida. Bucknell University Press (1994) page 120. ISBN 9780838752296
  19. ^ Elmer, Johathan. Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe. Stanford University Press (1995) ISBN 9780804725415 page 34
  20. ^ McArthur, Thomas Burns. McArthur, Roshan. Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press (2005) ISBN 9780192806376
  21. ^ Stove, David C. Against the Idols of the Age. Transaction Publishers (1999) ISBN 9781412816649 page xxv — xxvi
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. The Modern Language Association of America (1995) ISBN 0-87352-565-5 page 56
  24. ^ Fogarty, Mignon. The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Macmillan (2009) ISBN 9781429964401 page 207
  25. ^ Davidson, Arnold. I. The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts. Harvard University Press (2004) ISBN 9780674013704 page 87 — 88.
  26. ^ Sharma, Nandita Rani. Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada. University of Toronto Press (2006) ISBN 9781551930589 page 169
  27. ^ Kemp, Gary. What is this thing called Philosophy of Language? Routledge (2013) ISBN 9781135084851 page xxii
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Jonathan Chait, "Scared Yet?, The New Republic, Dec. 31, 2008.
  30. ^ Warmington, Paul. Black British Intellectuals and Education: Multiculturalism’s Hidden History. Routledge (2014) ISBN 9781317752363
  31. ^ 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
  32. ^ John M. Lawler, Prof. Emeritus of Linguistics, Quote, Unquote., Univ. of Michigan, retrieved 2010-10-09