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.

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    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, 2012 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, 2012 at 2:31
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    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, 2012 at 3:33
  • Funny question title...
    – augurar
    Jul 27, 2014 at 18:50

5 Answers 5


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.

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    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, 2012 at 0:17
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    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
    – user38936
    Apr 2, 2014 at 16:33
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    In the asker's example, the quotes emphasize that the term "chief internet evangelist" is Google's title for Vint Cerf, not the Washington Post's, without any particular negative connotation. Thus these cannot really be called "scare quotes" under this definition. They are more like quotes of attribution.
    – augurar
    Jul 27, 2014 at 18:49

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.

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    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, 2012 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.

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    I do agree that scare quotes can be, and often are, overused to an annoying and distracting extent.
    – tchrist
    Jun 1, 2012 at 0:18

Part of the original question remains unanswered. The reason for scare quotes around the expression scare quotes is that the excruciatingly proper eschew the use of quote as a noun, in favor of quotation for the quoted matter itself and quotation marks for the punctuation used to demarcate it. (Even in British English, quotation marks seems to have overtaken the formerly preferred term inverted commas in 1966.) But scare quotes is the only established expression for the phenomenon in question.


One consideration is that scare quotes can be used to imply a mocking tone:

He said he did not support "gambling", so didn't want to buy any raffle tickets.

This can risk bleeding into the passive aggressive.

Because of this, my personal practice is to never use scare quotes if I am referring to something someone else has said, implied, or might say. Or, less prescriptively, only use scare quotes like this if you would insult the person to their face, because they might interpret what you say as an insult!

The usage of quotation marks both for mockery and for more academic uses becomes problematic. I will attempt to reword sentences to avoid technical uses of quotation marks that might be interpreted as scare quotes. Sometimes italics can be used as an alternative to quotations to indicate proper names.

Another approach is to just write things out long-hand.

He said he equated raffle tickets to gambling, so didn't want any raffle tickets.

Alas, accuracy is often achieved at the price of brevity!

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