Scare Quotes

The glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Scare Quotes
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Scare quotes (also called shudder quotes) are quotation marks used around a word or phrase not to indicate a direct quotation but to suggest that the expression is somehow inappropriate or misleading—the equivalent of writing "supposed" or "so-called" in front of the word or phrase. 

Scare quotes are often used to express skepticism, disapproval, or derision. Writers are generally advised to use them sparingly.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The world's 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers 'earned' a combined $11.6 billion last year, despite the industry's averaging a mere 3 percent return, less than the S&P 500 index."
    (The Week, May 22, 2015)
  • "The real risk is that health care reform will be undermined by 'centrist' Democratic senators who either prevent the passage of a bill or insist on watering down key elements of reform. I use scare quotes around 'centrist,' by the way, because if the center means the position held by most Americans, the self-proclaimed centrists are in fact way out in right field."
    (Paul Krugman, "Health Care Showdown." The New York Times, June 22, 2009)
  • "The draft doesn't include an exact cost, though casually notes the ballpark 'investment' could run as high as $150 billion a year."
    ("The Obama Health Plan Emerges." The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 2008)
  • "Federal subsidies for 'art'—or even art without scare quotes—are legitimately controversial for all sorts of reasons: Surely the government has higher priorities; bureaucrats shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers—in the marketplace or the art gallery; it’s particularly annoying to be asked to fund expression you find inartistic and obscene."
    (Jonah Goldberg, "The Left's Wobbly Stance on Provocative Art." Chicago Tribune, May 8, 2015)
  • "I have used scare quotes (single quotation marks) in this book to flavor words or phrases with irony, to recognize sensitivities, to dissociate myself from a familiar usage—to call attention to usage and to invite the reader to think about how it may be too blithe, or wrong. For example, 'proper' woman: the scare quotes mean I wish to open the term to critical attention, to bring forward the prescriptions of propriety, so we can see them at work."
    (Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. Temple University Press, 2005)
  • The Rhetorical Effect of Scare Quotes
    This tactic is a means of influencing opinion against a view that one opposes. . . . Suppose someone makes the following claim about people trying to settle in the UK for reasons of political asylum:
    Almost all asylum seekers are economic migrants.
    Now consider the effect of using scare quotes around the term 'asylum seekers' so that the claim becomes:
    Almost all 'asylum seekers' are economic migrants.
    As you can see, the addition of scare quotes has the same rhetorical effect as putting the phrase 'so-called' before the crucial term or phrase. The claim becomes much more explicitly negative in respect of its questioning of the legitimacy of people's claims for asylum. Indeed, it has virtually the same effect as the rhetorically explosive phrase 'bogus asylum seekers.'"
    (Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp, Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)
  • The Destructive Nature of Scare Quotes
    "When we looked at all the essays together, . . . we found piece after piece littered with little typographical markings that like insect tracks were bleeding the life out of description, argument, dramatization. It was like a horror movie, when the demons that have previously appeared only in dreams and glimpses by a child that her parents ignored are suddenly everywhere, everywhere you look, and you can’t escape. Scare quotes.

    " . . . Scare quotes kill narrative. They kill story-telling. And it’s not a question of parsing, examining, analyzing, laying bare sacred texts. They are a writer’s assault on his or her own words.

    "They may seem to be a screen in which a writer pretends that he or she understands the inherently questionable nature of discourse itself—'when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean'—but in truth it’s a matter of a writer protecting himself or herself from whatever it is he or she is writing--protecting himself or herself from his or her peers, from his or her audience: You can’t believe I really meant that, can you? See the quotes? I’m not foolednot even by myself!
    (Greil Marcus, "Notes on the Making of A New Literary History of America." Harvard University Press Online, May 10, 2010)
  • The Lighter Side of Scare Quotes
    "Another bad habit of self-conscious writing is the prissy use of quotation marks—sometimes called shudder quotes or scare quotes—to distance the writer from a common idiom. . . . The use of shudder quotes is taken to an extreme in the agonizingly self-conscious, defiantly un-classic style of postmodernism, which rejects the possibility that any word can ever refer to anything, or even that there is an objectively existing world for words to refer to. Hence the 2004 headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion on the passing of postmodernism's leading light: JACQUES DERRIDA 'DIES.'"
    (Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style. Viking, 2014)