Scare quotes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Scare quotes (also called shudder quotes,[1][2] sneer quotes,[3] 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.[4] Scare quotes may indicate that the author is using someone else's term, similar to preceding a phrase with the expression "so-called";[5] 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.[6] 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.[7][8]


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.[9] 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.[10] Beginning in the 1990s, the use of scare quotes suddenly became very widespread.[11][12][13] Postmodernist authors in particular have theorized about bracketing punctuation, including scare quotes, and have found reasons for their frequent use in their writings.[2][14] 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.[15]


Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. They can imply doubt or ambiguity in words or ideas within the marks,[16] or even outright contempt.[17] They can indicate that a writer is purposely misusing a word or phrase[18] or that the writer is unpersuaded by the text in quotes,[19] and they can help the writer deny responsibility for the quote.[17] Megan Garber in 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."[20] In general, the punctuation expresses distance between the writer and the quote.[21][5]

For example:

Some "groupies" were following the band.

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.[22] 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.[23][24]


Some experts encourage writers to avoid scare quotes because they can distance the writer and confuse the reader.[25]

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."[26] Scare quotes have been described as ubiquitous, and the use of them as expressing distrust in truth, reality, facts, reason and objectivity.[12]

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.[27]

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.[28]

Scare quotes can be replaced by writing text to make the insinuation explicit.

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 quotation marks. A speaker may alternatively say "quote" before and "unquote" after quoted words, or say "quote unquote" before or after the quoted words,[29] or pause before and emphasize the parts in quotes. These spoken methods are also used for literal and conventional quotes.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Boolos, George. Logic, Logic, and Logic. Harvard University Press (1999) ISBN 9780674537675 p. 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. ^
  4. ^ University of Chicago Press staff. Chicago Manual of Style. University of Chicago Press (2010). p. 365.
  5. ^ a b Trask, Larry (1997), "Scare Quotes", University of Sussex Guide to Punctuation, University of Sussex
  6. ^ Siegal, Allan M. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Three Rivers Press (1999). ISBN 9780812963892. p. 280.
  7. ^ Trask, Larry. "Scare Quotes". University of Sussex. Retrieved 25 March 2023.
  8. ^ Garber, Megan (23 December 2016). "The Scare Quote: 2016 in a Punctuation Mark". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 March 2023.
  9. ^ Anscombe, G. E. M. (1 January 1956). "I.--Aristotle And The Sea Battle". Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy. 65 (1): 1–15. doi:10.1093/mind/65.1.1. JSTOR 2251218.
  10. ^ Finnegan, Ruth. Why Do We Quote?: The Culture and History of Quotation. Open Book Publishers (2011). ISBN 9781906924331. p. 86.
  11. ^ Howells, Richard, editor. Outrage: Art, Controversy, and Society. Palgrave Macmillan. (2012) ISBN 9780230350168, p. 89.
  12. ^ a b Haack, Susan, editor. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays. University of Chicago Press (2000) ISBN 9780226311371, p. 202.
  13. ^ Perlman, Merrill. "'Scare' Tactics". Columbia Journalism Review. 28 January 2013.
  14. ^
    • Nash, Christopher. The Unravelling of the Postmodern Mind. Edinburgh University Press. (2001) ISBN 9780748612154, p. 92.
    • Saguaro, Shelley. Garden Plots: The Politics and Poetics of Gardens. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. (2006) ISBN 9780754637530, p. 62.
    • Olson, Gary A. Worsham, Lynn. Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise. SUNY Press (2004) ISBN 9780791462133, p. 18.
    • Protevi, John. Time and Exteriority: Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida. Bucknell University Press (1994), p. 120. ISBN 9780838752296.
    • Elmer, Johathan. Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe. Stanford University Press (1995) ISBN 9780804725415. p. 34.
  15. ^ Waldman, Katy (6 May 2014). "Hashtags Are the New Scare Quotes". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 28 April 2022.
  16. ^ Stove, David C. Against the Idols of the Age. Transaction Publishers (1999) ISBN 9781412816649 pp. xxv–xxvi.
  17. ^ 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 p. 228.
  18. ^ Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. The Modern Language Association of America (1995) ISBN 0-87352-565-5 p. 56.
  19. ^ Fogarty, Mignon. The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Macmillan (2009) ISBN 9781429964401 p. 207.
  20. ^ Garber, Megan (23 December 2016). "The Scare Quote: 2016 in a Punctuation Mark". The Atlantic. Retrieved 28 April 2022.
  21. ^ linguistlaura (18 June 2012). "Scare quotes". Archived from the original on 1 July 2012. Retrieved 29 December 2021. The 'RF modulator' use is the 'neutral distancing' one on the Wikipedia page (special terminology).
  22. ^ McArthur, Thomas Burns. McArthur, Roshan. Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press (2005) ISBN 9780192806376
  23. ^ Davidson, Arnold. I. The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts. Harvard University Press (2004) ISBN 9780674013704 pp. 87–88.
  24. ^ Sharma, Nandita Rani. Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada. University of Toronto Press (2006) ISBN 9781551930589 p. 169.
  25. ^ Kemp, Gary. What is this thing called Philosophy of Language? Routledge (2013) ISBN 9781135084851 p. xxii.
  26. ^ Marcus, Greil (10 May 2010). "Greil Marcus - Notes on the Making of A New Literary History of America". Adapted from a talk given at Case Western Reserve University on 10 April 2010.
  27. ^ Jonathan Chait, "Scared Yet?, The New Republic, 31 December 2008.
  28. ^ Stove, David (1982). "Part 1, Chapter 1". Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Archived from the original on 2 February 2015. Reprinted as Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism (1998). Macleay Press. ISBN 1 876492 01 5.
  29. ^ John M. Lawler, Prof. Emeritus of Linguistics, Quote, Unquote., Univ. of Michigan, retrieved 9 October 2010