Judy Hagey

Nonfiction Editor ~ Freelance Writer

Don’t Let Scare Quotes Scare You

writingtipsI recently edited a paper that included an inordinate number of scare quotes. The writer may have thought he was doing readers a favor by placing quotation marks around a word he was introducing or using in an unusual or nontraditional way. But really, it was just plain scary the number of times they were used.

At one time, using quotation marks in this way was acceptable. But no longer. Now scare quotes are more likely used to convey derision, annoyance, or skepticism. And overusing them is more annoying than scary for a reader.

There may be times when you use a word in a nonstandard way. Setting it off in quotation marks will alert the reader, “I know this isn’t the way you normally understand this word.” Or “This is not my term.” But once is enough.

Here are three occasions when scare quotes are not required:

  • When you coin or use a new word, such as a neologism. Better to explain the meaning in the course of the piece.

Example: As she considered redecorating her apartment, Amanda googled for ideas.

(Google actually needs no further explanation as it has become a part of the lexicon, even though it’s not yet listed in Merriam-Webster's.)  

  • When you use an established term as an analogy. Trust readers to get your meaning.

Example:  The mayor bookended his remarks with high praise for the commissioners’ decision-making process.

  •  When you introduce a term with “so called.” Using that descriptor already signals your dissatisfaction with what follows. Adding scare quotes makes it redundant.

Example:  The so-called election was nothing but the president hand-picking his successor.

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