Janice Hall Heck

Finding hope in a chaotic world…

“Scare Quotes,” “Zombies,” “Dracula Girl,” and other “Unnaturals”

This time of year can be quite “dangerous.” It’s “Halloween,” you know, and you never know “who” (or “what”) you will see out there in the “dark forests” and “cemeteries” on your “lovely” evening stroll. Take these two “zombies,” for example. They belong to the world of “unnaturals,” for sure.

Zombies--varnamszombies- varnams

They “pretend” to be “ghouls” or the “living dead.” But who knows, maybe they just like to throw “scare quotes” around and paint their faces with black, red, and white paint (with a touch of green, please) just to add “local color” in their neighborhood.

Okay, I admit it. These two are “relatives”…just showing their “true colors.” And, no, I don’t think you want to meet them. They are a bit, well… forgive me… “weird.” We can overlook their little “oddities,” okay? But the “scare quotes” (overused quotations marks) are another matter. They get annoying.

What are “Scare Quotes”?

Scare quotes use quotation marks around non-quoted material to emphasize selected words for specific purposes.

1. For (unneeded) emphasis. “Greengrocer quotes”

“Greengrocers” use quotes about their “fresh” veggies and fruit.

"Happy" Pomegranites on sale today!

“Happy” Pomegranates on sale today!

Like greengrocers, some writers emphasize commonly understood words in their writing by putting quotes around them.

Scare quotes. Photo by Savandyke.worpress.com

Scare quotes. Photo by Savandyke.wordpress.com

Our new filters use fewer chemicals and result in “better quality water” in the pool.
Sammy and Bill are joining “old” friends on their Caribbean cruise.
She calls herself an “actress,” but she has less talent than a string bean in a chorus line.

But these are not scare quotes at all. These are, plain and simple, overused and unnecessary, quotations marks.

2. To indicate a questionable term.

On the other hand, Journalists, editors, academic writers, and other writers use scare quotes to let a reader know that an indicated term is not being used correctly.

The writer may be saying, “This is not my own term, I am just reporting on it. I have no opinion about it.” Or, “The writer I am quoting is using this term incorrectly or it’s the incorrect term.”

“Climate warming” has been identified as the cause of all extreme weather occurrences.

3. To indicate irony or sarcasm 

Correctly used care quotes generally imply skepticism, criticism, disagreement, disapproval, derision, even contempt. They call into question the truthfulness of the indicated word.

My brother complains about the “food” at the hospital.
Al Gore “invented” the Internet.
The “generosity” of that philanthropist is notorious.

The words “so-called” can be used in place of scare quotes, but don’t use both.

4. “Sneer Quotes” and “Smug Quotes.”

Sometimes scare quotes give off a bit of a superiority or sneering tone, hence the term, “sneer quotes” or “smug quotes.”

 “Dracula Girl” (Photo Caption)   WRITHING UNDER a “vampire” attack. Clarita Villanueva, 18, of Manila (Philippines), is watched anxiously by the city’s mayor… as she is held by a police doctor and a nurse. For the past 17 days since she was gaoled (and later acquitted) on a vagrancy charge, mysterious teeth marks have appeared on   the girl’s arms during her struggles with the invisible “vampire.” The Barrier Miner, May 28, 1953.

Translation: Hahaha. You really don’t believe this stuff, do you?

5. To insinuate but not prove. “Smear Quotes”

Politicians use scare quotes or smear quotes when they don’t like the language of the opposing party. Jonathan Chait wrote in The New Republic that

The scare quote is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you’re insinuating.”

  • Liberal: We’ve heard about these conservatives and their tax “relief”.
  • Conservative: The liberals have proposed yet another form of “common-sense” gun control.

The downside of this practice is that it’s also a shortcut for the writers, allowing them to wallow in their ideological prejudices without spelling out their empirical premises. Jonathan Chait, “Scared Yet?”

Dan Bloom comments in his column entitled “‘Scare quotes’ having a ‘field day’ in the ‘media'”  in The China Post, September 29, 2012.

In the long run-up to the American presidential election this coming November [2012], an epidemic of so-called “scare-quotes” is turning political punditry and commentary into what might be called “a punctuation epidemic.”

So What? Who Cares?  “Irritation Marks”

Unnecessary quotation marks and scare quotes can become “irritation marks” to readers. If you write for a journal or newspaper, for your boss or your blog, or even for that little community newsletter, you need to be aware of how to correctly use quotation marks and scare quotes.

Avoid all unnecessary quotation marks.  An occasional scare quote is not bad. But when you use them so much that the reader gets irritated, that is not good.

One irritated Internet writer said it this way: “Scare quotes” “scare” the “hell” out of me.”

That’s how bad it gets!

Click on the following citations for more information on “scare quotes”:

Dan Bloom, “‘Scare quotes’ having a ‘field day’ in the ‘media'” The China Post
Johnathan Chait, “Scared Yet,” The New Republic
Daily Writing Tips, 3 Erroneous uses of scare quotes 
Grammar Girl, Quick and Dirty Tips single-quotation-marks-versus-double-quotation-marks
The Blog of Unnecessary Quotes.Com
Scott Thornbury, Q is for Quote Marks
Wikipedia, Scare Quotes
And of course, The Chicago Manual of Style.

And would you believe? Shakespeare supposedly used scare quotes.
Martin Harries wrote a book entitled, Scare Quotes from Shakespeare. Can you believe that? Check it out on Amazon.com.

The Last Meow

In the meantime, watch out for those “black cats” and those larger-than-life “conniving witches” in the woods. They can be “dangerous.”  “Happy Halloween”

Witches at Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ

Witches at Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ


Meow for now.  =<^;^>= 

For more Halloween fun, read more about these witches and other unnaturals on my previous posts:

Witches on the Prowl
Unnaturals Invade Grounds for Sculpture in NJ

Single Post Navigation

2 thoughts on ““Scare Quotes,” “Zombies,” “Dracula Girl,” and other “Unnaturals”

  1. i am dan bloom, quote unquote and i approve this blog post. SMILE, “scare quotes”

    • HI, And thanks so much for your note. I am starting to collect more “scare quotes” and will probably do another post sometime in the next couple of months. I read your article in The China Post (on Internet), and now I see more and more scare quotes in the news. It is an epidemic. BTW I have been to Taiwan several times and enjoyed my time there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: