Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

For example, is putting scare quotes around "scare quotes" appropriate? Wikipedia says the term means usage of quote marks "to indicate that [a word or phrase] does not signify its literal or conventional meaning," which seems a bit off the mark. Further on, the entry says "scare quotes may indicate that the writer does not accept the usage of the phrase (or the phrase itself), that the writer feels its use is potentially ironic, or that the writer feels it is a misnomer. This meaning may serve to distance the writer from the quoted content." Better, but still offers minimal guidance on usage.

The question arose in my mind today when reading this phrase in the Washington Post: "...said Vint Cerf, Google vice president and "'chief internet evangelist.'" I'll admit the title is a bit odd, but it's official (even capitalized) according to Google. In this case the usage of scare quotes seems off base.

share|improve this question
4  
Not an answer, but in this instance, I think the quotes are because while "chief internet evangelist" might be his title, it is self-bestowed so possibly the author feels it is not a real title. –  Rory Alsop May 31 '12 at 18:55
    
    
Hmm, you are looking for guidance- Ok, if you are the author of some bit of text and you find yourself using a word or phrase in which your usage isn't intended to signify its literal or convention meaning; or if you do not accept the usage of a phrase (or the phrase itself); or you feel that your usage is potentially ironic, or feel it's a misnomer and you wish to distance yourself from the quoted text- THEN, put it in scare quotes!! –  Jim Jun 1 '12 at 2:31
1  
Seen on a chalk board in an old folks' home: 98th Birthday Party for "Violet"! All invited! (The lady's name really was Violet) –  JAM Jun 1 '12 at 3:33

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

In his ‘Guide to Punctuation’, the late Professor Larry Trask described scare quotes thus:

Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase from which you, the writer, wish to distance yourself because you consider that word or phrase to be odd or inappropriate for some reason. Possibly you regard it as too colloquial for formal writing; possibly you think it's unfamiliar or mysterious; possibly you consider it to be inaccurate or misleading; possibly you believe it's just plain wrong.

share|improve this answer
    
This reminds me of the use of font changes, like italic for unassimilated loanwords from another language and monospace for program literals. For example, a “maître d’hôtel” for a maître d’hôtel, or the “printf” function for the printf function. –  tchrist Jun 1 '12 at 0:17
1  
Prof. Trask's concluding paragraph is quite important and relevant to this question: "I can't really approve of scare quotes used in this way. If you think a word is appropriate, then use it, without any quotes; if you think it's not appropriate, then don't use it, unless you specifically want to be ironic. Simultaneously using a word and showing that you don't approve of it will only make you sound like an antiquated fuddy-duddy." sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/quotes/scare –  Kenny LJ Apr 2 at 16:33

Scare quotes are a way to, simply with punctuation, confer the idea of 'so called'. That is, when you use scare quotes, you are imaginarily quoting what someone else has said, implying that you might not have used those terms, implying doubt.

share|improve this answer
4  
For what it's worth, a long time ago, I read that you can use the quotes to express dubiousness, or you can preface the expression with 'so-called', but you shouldn't do both; i.e., so-called chief internet evangelist is okay, as is "chief internet evangelist", but not so-called "chief internet evangelist" –  J.R. May 31 '12 at 20:19

Scare quotes are best used in political advertisements where your intent to highlight how "stupid" your opponent really sounds. Be warned, however, that it may "backfire."

Any so-called "politician" should respect his audience enough to let them draw their own conclusions, without having to highlight the point.

share|improve this answer
2  
I do agree that scare quotes can be, and often are, overused to an annoying and distracting extent. –  tchrist Jun 1 '12 at 0:18

protected by RegDwigнt Jun 22 '12 at 16:25

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.