“Scared”? The Punctuation That’s Eroding Your Credibility

One of the most powerful tools—and persistent hobgoblins—of communicators is the use of scare quotes. They’re used to distance the writer from the term in question. When someone makes the two-finger air-quotes gesture while speaking, that’s the real-world equivalent of written scare quotes. Examples:

astrological “science”
“life” in prison

The scare quotes strongly imply that astrology isn’t really a science and question the degree to which incarceration can be considered truly living.

To an extent, the quotation marks are useful. They quickly signal to a reader that a term is to be treated with a grain of salt. But scare quotes can easily and quickly be overused, diluting their power. To avoid this happening to you, dear reader, follow these handy tips:

  • Say what you mean. Sometimes scare quotes force your readers to guess which aspect of the term you are undercutting. (Are you saying that astrology is regrettably unscientific or that astrology should aspire to be an art rather than a science? What is it about calling astrology a science that you find objectionable?) Good writing shouldn’t be a guessing game for readers.
  • Don’t use scare quotes when words will do the job. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests using “so-called” before the dubious term. The example given is as follows: So-called child protection sometimes fails to protect.
  • Don’t use quotes for emphasis; they can easily be taken for scare quotes. There’s nothing more cringe-inducing than quotation marks used to denote emphasis: Try these “all-beef” hot dogs! If you want your impassioned statements to be taken seriously, skip the quotation marks; consider italics. In case you need more evidence that emphatic quotation marks destroy lives, visit The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. It’ll get you sorted out.
  • Don’t confuse scare quotes and real quotes. If your subject really does call astrology a science, then you’d better make it clear that the word is hers, not yours. You can do this by citing the quotation or by explaining, in your own words, that the term is hers. Easy as pie! The danger of confusing scare and real quotes is unintentionally attributing words to unsuspecting subjects. That’s putting words in others’ mouths, and you don’t want to do that—especially in academic writing.
  • Be conscious of tone. Oftentimes scare quotes can lower the tone of your writing in seconds flat. It’s much more sophisticated to indicate your critique of a term with words than with punctuation.

Once you’ve covered those bases, use scare quotes proudly! If you have built a strong context around scare-quoted terms so that they can’t be mistaken by your readers, if you’ve avoided flippant tone, and if you haven’t overused scare quotes elsewhere in the work, you’re in the clear. Scare quotes used judiciously are an excellent way to make writing more engaging.

But remember, when you get the urge to communicate disdain through quotation marks, first think of their potential—if used inexpertly—to act as virtual bunny ears behind your composition. Do you still want to do it? Great. Go for it.

UPDATE: See also “3 Erroneous Uses of Scare Quotes,” by former UC Berkeley editing instructor Mark Nichol. He tackles head-on some of the most stubborn excuses for employing scare quotes.

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