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Scare quotes

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

My most recent proofread was a thesis of well over 70,000 words – 211 pages of well-written text on an interesting topic, the proud product of years of original research, a very enjoyable proofread. In addition, English was not the author’s first language, which made this work even more impressive.


However, despite the high standard of writing, I ended up littering the margin with tracked changes. Why? Because I deleted 1,000+ scare quotes.


The author clearly thought that every word deemed important deserved special attention. We all know that in casual writing, grammar rules can go out the window, but academic writing is a whole different ball game, so if you want to impress your supervisor, stay clear from scare quotes.


What are scare quotes?


Scare quotes, also called shudder quotes, sneer quotes or quibble quotes, are the single or double quotation marks around a word or phrase to alert the reader of their unusual, nonstandard, ironic or other use. They create distance between the author and the term and can be useful if used correctly and in moderation.

Take, for example, the term cascade system. It literally means "a system or method of connecting and operating two induction motors so that the primary circuit of one is connected to the secondary circuit of the other, the primary circuit of the latter being connected to the source of supply; also, a system of electric traction in which motors so connected are employed”.


So, when I proofread an article on vocational education the other day, and I came across the sentence “The vocational education system is characterised by a ‘cascade system’”, I didn’t remove the scare quotes because, in this context, the author is obviously not referring to a connection between two motors; instead, the reader is supposed to interpret the meaning of cascade system and apply it to the structure of the vocational education system.


Origin of scare quotes


According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Anscombe introduced scare quotes in 1956 in an essay entitled "Aristotle and the Sea Battle". However, on the English Language & Usage Forum of StackExchange, Dan Bloom provides proof that Carey McWilliams used the term “scare-quotes” in his book Southern California: An Island on the Land, and Susan Doose even claims that the use of scare quotes can be traced back to the second century BC.


While scare quotes serve a purpose, please consider the following before you decide to put quotation marks around every term you consider worthy of special emphasis:

  • An overuse of scare quotes sends the message that the author couldn’t be bothered explaining the term. Some critics even say that overusing scare quotes is a sign of lazy writing.

  • Most of the time, scare quotes are not necessary. If you think that the reader may not know what you mean, explain the term.

  • Scare quotes may send the wrong message and confuse readers. They indicate irony or scepticism, so if you surround every word deemed important with quotation marks, the reader may think you are trying to convey a different meaning.

  • Scare quotes create an informal tone and are not encouraged in academic writing.

  • Scare quotes tend to irritate readers if overused.

  • Scare quotes lose their meaning if overused.

Finally, if you decide on using scare quotes:

  • Use them in moderation.

  • Do not use quotation marks after the term ‘so-called’.

  • Use them the first time the word or phrase is used; thereafter, do not use them again for that term.

  • Do not combine italics with quotation marks.


What to use instead of scare quotes


Firstly, when you quote other people’s work, quotation marks are essential. Don’t forget to add a reference in parentheses, including the page number where you found the quote. Dialogue is another obvious example that requires quotation marks, and titles of certain works.


However, if you want to emphasise a word, consider italics (also in moderation), or perhaps a different font.


If you want to read further on scare quotes, I highly recommend Megan Garber’s brilliantly written and entertaining article “The Scare Quote: 2016 in a Punctuation Mark


For detailed information on choosing between italics and quotation marks, please check out “Marking Text—Choosing Between Italics and Quotation Marks” by Beth Hill




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