Creative Destruction

May 15, 2006

Scare Quotes (or should that be “Scare” Quotes?)

Filed under: Blogosphere,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 4:06 pm

For more than a month as a contributor to this group blog, I've restrained myself from commenting on the poor writing I see, especially in the comments section (which admittedly is harder to format and edit than the main posts). I have my own share of mistakes, to be certain, but I read my posts and comments at least three times to eliminate most problems. I have noticed recently the reckless, improper, and misleading use of scare quotes, which is a term I don't prefer but is apparently becoming standard. I learned from Wikipedia that they're also called sneer quotes or, when used in speech rather than writing, air quotes.

All well and good, I suppose. My problem is that my fairly restrictive sense of usage and grammar leads me to believe that quotes are best used for literal quotation or for irony but not for emphasis. In dialogue, we should write

She said "yes" to my proposal.

Or in another formulation

She said, "of course you can attend."

For irony, we should write

It wasn't a "bad" idea.

to show that the word bad isn't intended in its usual sense. When referring to words as words, quotes can be used, but I prefer to use italics (see e.g., first paragraph).

What's making me twist, of course, is the use of scare quotes for coined terms (where capitalization might work better), arbitrarily for emphasis (where boldface or italics might be preferred), or needlessly (where quotes misdirect the reader to an alternative meaning or emphasis not really implied). For instance, to say someone is a "liberal" (insert your perferred label if you wish, I'm not writing about liberalism) doesn't require quotes, and quotes point to irony or emphasis that simply isn't there.

Certainly, I'm not going to reform others' poor writing any more than I'm going to fix common misspellings that grate on me:

  • definately instead of definitely
  • seperate instead of separate
  • alot instead of a lot (and others too numerous to mention or remember)

I'm just having a mild little rant.



  1. It “bothers” me alot to see these seperate issues being raised by a “liberal”. I definately see your point, tho.

    Comment by Robert — May 15, 2006 @ 4:13 pm | Reply

  2. I habitually use italics for emphasis, disliking the visual effect of bold.

    Quotes are of course properly used to indicate quoted speech, or to indicate that you are referring to the word itself, and not it’s meaning. For example: “monosyllabic” is not monosyllabic.

    The main rhetorical use of quotes is not irony per se, but to indicate that the author regards the usage as incorrect, but prevalent, for example: The Duke rape “victim”. This is fair enough if your debate opponent is using the word (in which case both conventional and rhetorical interpretations apply). All to often it’s used to smuggle in a strawman (for example if your opponents aren’t using the word in this way) or an unstated proposition. (i.e. that she really isn’t a victim).

    Comment by Daran — May 15, 2006 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

  3. All to often


    Comment by Daran — May 15, 2006 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  4. The net is better off with one more post like this soaring through search engines.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — May 17, 2006 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

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