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What are Scare Quotes?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 July 2014
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Scare quotes are quote marks that are not used to identify a direct quote, but rather to draw attention to a particular issue under discussion. There are a number of different ways to use them, but in most cases, they have a negative connotation. Before people use them, they should consider the negative implications that go along with them.

One classical use of scare quotes comes up when someone wants to use a term while simultaneously distancing him or herself from it. For example, someone writing about self-improvement courses might use the term “self actualization,” indicating that the term comes from the organization offering the courses. The use of these quotes also tends to cast doubt on the topic under discussion.

People also use them in a disparaging way, in which case they may become known as sneer quotes. Someone penning a furious letter to the editor about a meeting of a town's planning commission might use scare quotes like this: “Members of the 'planning commission' claim to be working for the town, but I think they are enacting policies which actually work against us.” In this sentence, the sneer quotes suggest that the planning commission is a disreputable body which is not doing its job.

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You may also see scare quotes enclosing a slang term or unusual usage of a word, often in the distancing sense. A member of the older generation might, for example, put “rap music” in quotation marks to identify it as a slang term, while someone who wished do disparage the genre might say rap “music,” adding a sense of sarcasm.

The irony and sarcasm of scare quotes is not limited to text. In spoken communications, people may crook their fingers above their heads and waggle them to suggest quotes while discussing something, for example, or they may change their tone of voice to identify them. In some cases, people may even make the quotation marks in spoken communications explicit, with a statement like “The quote-unquote planning commission doesn't seem to be doing a very good job,” or “The quote humane society unquote seems to be killing a lot of animals.”

Scare quotes are often overused, so people should always evaluate a situation before applying them. They should keep the sarcasm factor in mind when using them, as they often change the meaning of the enclosed word or phrase to its exact opposite. Would someone buy fruit from a grocery store with “fresh fruit,” or insurance from a company advertising “low rates”?

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