Scare quotes

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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 or not a pair of quotation marks are considered scare quotes depends on context; they are not visually differentiated from actual quotations.


Jmaes Thurber in 1954
"The most frequent use of 'security' (I hate to add to its shakiness with quotation marks, which have taken on a tone of mockery in our day) . . ." --- James Thurber in "The Psychosemanticist Will See You Now, Mr. Thurber" (1955)[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] Beginning in the 1990s, the use of scare quotes suddenly became very widespread.[10][11][12] Postmodernist authors in particular have theorized about bracketing punctuation, including scare quotes, and have found reasons for their frequent use in their writings.[2][13]


Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. They can imply doubt or ambiguity in words or ideas within the marks,[14] or even outright contempt.[15] They can indicate that a writer is purposely misusing a word or phrase[16] or that the writer is unpersuaded by the text in quotes,[17] and they can help the writer deny responsibility for the quote.[15] In general, they express distance[18] between writer and quote.[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.[19] 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.[20][21]


Some experts encourage writers to avoid scare quotes because they can distance the writer and confuse the reader.[22]

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."[23] Scare quotes have been described as ubiquitous, and the use of them as expressing distrust in truth, reality, facts, reason and objectivity.[11] 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."[24]

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.[25]

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,[26] 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 page 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). page 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. page 280.
  7. ^ "The Psychosemanticist Will See You Now, Mr. Thurber" by James Thurber. The New Yorker, May 1955. Reprinted in Science, April 1956. Both accessed 18 May 2021.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Finnegan, Ruth. Why Do We Quote?: The Culture and History of Quotation. Open Book Publishers (2011). ISBN 9781906924331. p. 86.
  10. ^ Howells, Richard, editor. Outrage: Art, Controversy, and Society. Palgrave Macmillan. (2012) ISBN 9780230350168, page 89
  11. ^ a b Haack, Susan, editor. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays. University of Chicago Press (2000) ISBN 9780226311371, page 202.
  12. ^ Perlman, Merrill. "'Scare' Tactics". Columbia Journalism Review. 28 January 2013.
  13. ^
    • Nash, Christopher. The Unravelling of the Postmodern Mind. Edinburgh University Press. (2001) ISBN 9780748612154, page 92.
    • Saguaro, Shelley. Garden Plots: The Politics and Poetics of Gardens. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. (2006) ISBN 9780754637530, page 62
    • Olson, Gary A. Worsham, Lynn. Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise. SUNY Press (2004) ISBN 9780791462133, page 18.
    • Protevi, John. Time and Exteriority: Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida. Bucknell University Press (1994), page 120. ISBN 9780838752296.
    • Elmer, Johathan. Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe. Stanford University Press (1995) ISBN 9780804725415. page 34.
  14. ^ Stove, David C. Against the Idols of the Age. Transaction Publishers (1999) ISBN 9781412816649 page xxv — xxvi
  15. ^ 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 page 228
  16. ^ Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. The Modern Language Association of America (1995) ISBN 0-87352-565-5 page 56
  17. ^ Fogarty, Mignon. The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Macmillan (2009) ISBN 9781429964401 page 207
  18. ^ linguistlaura (18 June 2012). "Scare quotes". Archived from the original on 1 July 2012. quote: << The 'RF modulator' use is the 'neutral distancing' one on the Wikipedia page (special terminology). >>; note that the reference to "the Wikipedia page" inside that quoted quote, there, is ... apparently intended to direct the reader to [what is now] an old "non-latest" version of the "Scare quotes" article on the English Wikipedia, such as the "oldid=498658294" version, dated "05:52, 21 June 2012" ... when (or, "as of" which) [that version of] the article did contain a section called "Neutral distancing".
  19. ^ McArthur, Thomas Burns. McArthur, Roshan. Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press (2005) ISBN 9780192806376
  20. ^ Davidson, Arnold. I. The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts. Harvard University Press (2004) ISBN 9780674013704 page 87 — 88.
  21. ^ Sharma, Nandita Rani. Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada. University of Toronto Press (2006) ISBN 9781551930589 page 169
  22. ^ Kemp, Gary. What is this thing called Philosophy of Language? Routledge (2013) ISBN 9781135084851 page xxii
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Jonathan Chait, "Scared Yet?, The New Republic, 31 December 2008.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ John M. Lawler, Prof. Emeritus of Linguistics, Quote, Unquote., Univ. of Michigan, retrieved 9 October 2010