Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to imply that it may not signify its apparent meaning or that it is not necessarily the way the quoting person would express its concept. Thus, the quotes are used to establish a use–mention distinction, in a similar way to verbally prefixing a phrase with "so-called". When referred to as "scare quotes", the quotation marks are suggested to imply skepticism or disagreement with the quoted terminology.
Use of the term scare quotes appears to have arisen at some point during the first half of the 20th century. Occurrence of the term in books appears as early as 1946 in Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams and in the 1950s in academic literature.
Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. When the enclosed text is a quotation from another source, scare quotes may indicate that the writer does not accept the usage of the phrase (or the phrase itself), that the writer feels its use is potentially ironic, or that the writer feels it is a misnomer. This meaning may serve to distance the writer from the quoted content.
If scare quotes are enclosing a word or phrase that does not represent a quotation from another source they may simply serve to alert the reader that the word or phrase is used in an unusual, special, or non-standard way or should be understood to include caveats to the conventional meaning.
Alternatively, material in scare quotes may represent the writer's concise (but possibly misleading) paraphrasing, characterization, or intentional misrepresentation of statements, concepts, or terms used by a third party. This may be an expression of sarcasm or incredulity, or it may also represent a rhetorical attempt to frame a discussion in the writer's desired (non-standard) terms (e.g. a circumlocution, an apophasis, or an innuendo).
The term scare quotes may be confusing because the word scare implies provocation, yet the term covers emotionally neutral usage as well. In many cases an author uses scare quotes not to convey alarm, but to signal a semantic quibble.
Non-acceptance of terminology
Quotation of another's words
- The invention of coinage by the Lydians lies really in this innovation, which, however simple it may seem to us now, was then of deep political significance. When once a state currency was instituted, the private coinages fell out of use, for no individual banker could compete with the guarantee of the state, and the state would not tolerate imitation of its own types. We may therefore take it that the successive stages in the "invention" of coinage were somewhat as follows: first, the occasional practice of stamping certain weights of metal with marks by which they could be identified; this probably continued in private use for a long period before it was adopted by a state, perhaps first by Lydia; and finally the adoption all over the Greek world of a series of state coinages. The convenience of the "invention" was so obvious as to justify the statement of Herodotus that the Lydians were the first nation of shopkeepers.
—A Guide to the Exhibition Illustrating Greek and Roman Life, British Museum, 1908
In this passage the writer uses scare quotes around the word invention to express the opinion that Herodotus is incorrect in ascribing to the Lydians the role of the inventors of coinage. The writer does not begin enclosing the word invention in quotation marks until he begins to express skepticism that its usage was appropriate. In this case, unlike many other applications of scare quotes, the enclosed word is an actual quotation from another source.
- Kazakhstan's famous "130-year-old"—Headline on BBC News web site
The quotation marks around 130-year-old indicate that the news source is reporting but not endorsing the claim.
- "normal" people
The word normal denotes that something is proper or not defective. A writer who puts normal in quotation marks may be insinuating that normal is just a point of reference, that it refers to the average. The writer might be arguing that what is normal is not superior in that situation, or that no person could really be called normal in any meaningful way.
The effect of using scare quotes is often similar to prepending a skeptical modifier such as so-called or alleged to label the quoted word or phrase, to indicate scorn, sarcasm, or irony. Scare quotes may be used to express disagreement with the original speaker's intended meaning without actually establishing grounds for disagreement or disdain, or without even explicitly acknowledging it. In this type of usage, they are sometimes called "sneer quotes".
- Liberal: We've heard about these conservatives and their tax "relief".
- Conservative: The liberals have proposed yet another form of "common-sense" gun control.
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."
Taiwan-based reporter Dan Bloom wrote in The Taipei Times that "Beijing propaganda officials also use a Western punctuation device (so-called 'scare-quotes') to blot out Taiwan's dignity and geopolitical space." Bloom also said that in China, scare quotes in state-controlled media (using double bracket quotes as the Chinese equivalent of quotation marks) are often used to belittle the reality of rival nation Taiwan by putting the names of Taiwan's leaders and government bodies in double bracket quote marks.
Bloom also wrote an editorial-page article in the China Post headlined "'Scare quotes' having a 'field day' in the 'media'", in which he said that "in the long run-up to the American presidential election this coming November 2012, an epidemic of so-called 'scare quotes' is turning political punditry and commentary into what might be called 'a punctuation epidemic'." His article also said that "when someone on the left or right doesn't like the language of the opposing side, the writer often put the words in scare quotes, to signal to the reader that he or she is of a very different opinion, and as a result, nothing gets resolved and only more confusion and noise results."
Enclosing a word or phrase in quotes can also convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question. The quotes are used to call attention to a neologism, special terminology (jargon), or a slang usage, or to indicate words or phrases that are descriptive but unusual, colloquial, folksy, startling, humorous, or metaphoric. They may indicate special terminology that should be identified for accuracy's sake as someone else's, for example if a term (particularly a controversial term) pre-dates the writer or represents the views of someone else.
- Moctezuma II was reported to have had two wives and many concubines, by whom he had a total of 150 children. The king of Texcoco was said to have had more than two thousand "wives" by whom he had had 144 children, 11 born of his chief wife.
—Bruce G. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations (2003)
In the above passage the writer uses scare quotes to indicate that the reported two thousand partners of Nezahualpilli, poet-astrologer-king of the Mesoamerican state of Texcoco, should not be understood to have been his wives in the same sense that the word wife is used elsewhere.
Some writers prefer italics for this neutral usage, even though italics may easily be mistaken for emphasis. (This has been humorously labeled "scare italics".)
Conversely, neutral quotes may indicate that the word or phrase in quotes has changed in meaning since its usage in the specific instance, especially if the word or phrase has gained a controversial or pejorative meaning.
- Billy Joe's story is analyzed in Professor John Howard's history of gays in Mississippi entitled Men Like That: A Queer Southern History as an archetype of what Howard calls the "gay suicide myth".
Howard's use, which refers to the academic meaning of the word myth, is unrelated to the more recent conservative "gay suicide myth" theory that gay teen suicide rates are over-reported so that gay people can claim unrealistic discrimination and obtain special treatment.
Style guides generally recommend the avoidance of scare quotes in impartial works, such as in encyclopedia articles or academic discussion.
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), 15th edition acknowledges this type of use but cautions against overuse in section 7.58: "Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense [...] They imply 'This is not my term' or 'This is not how the term is usually applied.' Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused."
Scare quotes (and other quotation marks used in a special sense) are usually given in the same style (single or double) as those used elsewhere in a work.
Single quotation marks are used in linguistics to mark a gloss as separate from either the metalanguage, which is used in the descriptive or theoretical prose, or the object language, which is rendered in italics. The following sentence illustrates this:
- The Latin word homo means 'man'.
This sentence is about a word in the object language Latin, which appears in italics, and about its counterpart in the gloss language English, enclosed in single quotation marks. The metalanguage, also English, is unaltered.
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 or simply pause before and emphasize the parts in quotes. This spoken method is also used for literal and conventional quotes.
- McWilliams, Carey (1946), Southern California: An Island on the Land, p. 298, ISBN 9780879050078
- Mind LXV, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 3, ISSN 0026-4423, OCLC 40463594
- Analysis 17, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956, p. 138, ISSN 0003-2638, OCLC 49855776
- Gibbs, Raymond W. (1994), The Poetics of Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 379, ISBN 978-0-521-42992-4, OCLC 29259099
- Wheatley, Jon (1970), Prolegomena to Philosophy, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, p. 80, OCLC 83152
- British Museum. Dept. of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1908), A Guide to the Exhibition Illustrating Greek and Roman Life, British Museum, retrieved 2009-07-22
- Demytrie, Rayhan: "Kazakhstan's famous '130-year-old'", BBC News web site, April 9, 2009.
- Trask, Larry (1997), "Scare Quotes", University of Sussex Guide to Punctuation (University of Sussex)
- Jonathan Chait, "Scared Yet?, The New Republic, Dec. 31, 2008.
- Dan Bloom, "Scare quotes blot out Taiwan", Taipei Times, Aug. 29, 2012.
- Dan Bloom, "'Scare quotes' having a 'field day' in the 'media'", China Post, Sept. 9, 2012.
- Trigger, Bruce G. (2003), Understanding Early Civilizations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 178, ISBN 978-0-521-82245-9, OCLC 50291226
- Hamrah, Scott "Slotcar Hatebath" (20 March 2000), "The Jawbone of a Scare Quote", Suck.com
- John Howard. Men Like That: A Queer Southern History. ISBN 978-0-226-35470-5.
- Traditionalvalues.org position on "gay suicide myth"
- The Chicago Manual of Style Online, retrieved 2007-11-08
- Peters, Pam (2007), The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, p. 670, ISBN 978-0-521-87821-0, OCLC 73994040
- Butcher, J.; Drake, C.; Leach, M. (2006), Butcher's Copy-Editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-Editors and Proofreaders (4th ed.), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press
- John M. Lawler, Prof. Emeritus of Linguistics. "Quote, Unquote.". Univ. of Michigan. Retrieved 2010-10-09.