Why Do People Use Scare Quotes?

There's no reason to be "scared" of scare quotes as long as you know what they are, why to (usually) avoid them, and when it's appropriate to use them. 

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #795
The Quick And Dirty
  • When quotation marks are used to mean "so-called," they're referred to as "scare quotes."
  • Scare quotes (like gestured air quotes) are used when writers want to distance themselves from the words they use.
  • Never use scare quotes for emphasis. When you do, a phrase like "We've recently updated our 'safety' guidelines" is interpreted as "We've recently updated our so-called safety guidelines."

The practice of using punctuation to indicate verbatim speech seems to have had its origins in the diple, a caret-like ancient Greek marking used to call attention to part of a text. By the late 15th century, the diple had been replaced by a pair of inverted commas placed in the left margins to indicate quotations, and by end of the 18th century the inverted commas were being used to open and close quoted material.

Single and double quotes battled it out for a time, with double quotes emerging as the norm by the 19th century for quoted speech and single quotes for reported speech within a quote. Quote marks were also used for the titles of articles and other short works.

By the 20th century, editorial conventions for quoting were stable and quotation marks had been extended to new uses, such as signaling technical terms, identifying cited words, and to mean “so-called” (this last, a favorite of Henry James).

It’s easy to imagine how such new uses emerged. Quotes for technical terms signal to the reader that the author is introducing a concept unfamiliar to the reader. The quotes say, “I am calling something this.” The writer usually omits the quotes after the first mention (where, hopefully, the term is defined, even if just by context).

Quotes for technical terms are one form of noting unfamiliar usage. Another is citing a word as a word—the philosopher’s “use-mention distinction,” as in “‘Amy’ has three letters.” The function is citation, so quotes are again a natural convention. This use of quotes seems to have originated, or at least been popularized by W. V. O. Quine’s 1940 book “Mathematical Logic” (insofar as a book on mathematical logic can popularize anything). The practice of using quote marks around unfamiliar terms or word used as words has been somewhat supplanted by italicization, in part because software has democratized font choice.

Scare quotes are used when writers wish to distance themselves from the words they use. They are the written equivalent of the gestural air quotes. Such quotes are a typographical shudder or sneer, and “shudder quotes” and “sneer quotes” are alternate terms for them, and more descriptive as well. When used to introduce a term that a writer would normally avoid, the quotes can be a type of shudder: “The ‘gig’ economy has arrived in full-force.” Or at least that’s what people call it.

When used to introduce a characterization a writer disagrees with, the quotes sneer: “Management hired several 'consultants' to develop the new business plan.” Several so-called consultants. Sometimes the difference is tough to discern, as when someone writes: “My child was ‘held back” in school.” Is that a shudder or a sneer? And when someone writes “The plan to 'deconstruct' the curriculum met with resistance,” is that a technical term or a sneer? Without intonation to help, scare-quoted words can be frustratingly vague.

Even more frustrating are quotes are used for emphasis. We find this in folk signage such as

“Fresh” seafood

Please keep all “valuables” with you.

Use “caution” on stairs.

“Gluten free” section

Such unnecessary quotes—there are blogs dedicated to them–are widely derided, and rightly so. How might the use have arisen? Not from irony or sneering. It is conceivable that quotes used for emphasis are an extension of the use of quotes for technical terms. People might have understood quotes around technical terms as meaning that all important words should be in quotes. But there are other possible sources for this practice as well.

Advertising may shed light on the rise of such unnecessary quotation marks in two ways. Some businesses have used quotation marks around descriptive words to distinguish them for trademark and branding purposes. A writer for the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange points out that the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company advertised and branded its bathroom fixtures as “The American Standard” and the Chelsea Milling Company produces “Jiffy” muffin mixes. Perhaps quotes as trade decoration were transferred to quotes as emphasis.

A librarian writing for Otherstream Media has also suggested unnecessary quotation marks seem particularly prevalent in classic Yellow Pages advertising, where ad templates provided to businesses by telephone books used quotes around phrases like “Where to Find Them” and “Where to Call.” Yellow Page style may have legitimized and extended quotes as a stylistic option in other advertising.

That last instance of the word “legitimized” should probably have quotes around it. Shudder.

This piece originally appeared on the OUP blog and is included here with permission.

[Editor's Note: Although it is our style to use "quotation" where this piece often uses "quote," "quote" has been used to mean "quotation" for more than 100 years, and the American Heritage Dictionary usage note says that in 2009, 80% of their usage panel accepted that use, so we left it unchanged.]

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Edwin L. Battistella, Writing for Grammar Girl

Edwin Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump" (OUP, 2020), "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?" (OUP, 2009), "Bad Language" (OUP, 2005), and "The Logic of Markedness" (OUP, 1996).