Scare quotes  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Scare quotes (also called shudder quotes, and quibble marks) are quotation marks a writer places around a word or phrase to signal that they are using it in a non-standard, ironic, or otherwise special sense. Scare quotes may express that the author is using someone else's term, similar to preceding a phrase with the expression "so-called"; they may imply skepticism or disagreement, belief that the words are misused, or that the writer intends a meaning opposite to the words enclosed in quotes.



Elizabeth Anscombe coined the term scare quotes as it refers to punctuation marks in 1956, in an essay called Aristotle and the Sea Battle published in Mind. The use of a graphic symbol on an expression to indicate irony or dubiousness goes back much further: Authors of ancient Greece used a mark called a diple periestigmene for that purpose. Beginning in the 1990s the use of scare quotes suddenly became very widespread. Postmodernist authors in particular have theorized about bracketing punctuation, including scare quotes, and have found reasons for their frequent use in their writings.


Writers use scare quotes for a variety of reasons. They can imply doubt or ambiguity in words or ideas within the marks, or even outright contempt. They can indicate that a writer is purposely misusing a word or phrase or that the writer is unpersuaded by the text in quotes, and they can help the writer deny responsibility for the quote. In general, they express distance between writer and quote.

For example:

"Some "groupies" were following the band.}} The scare quotes could indicate that the word is not one the writer would normally use, or that the writer thinks there is something dubious about the word groupies or its application to these people. The exact meaning of the scare quotes is not clear without further context."

The term scare quotes may be confusing because of the word scare. An author may use scare quotes not to convey alarm, but to signal a semantic quibble. Scare quotes may suggest or create a problematization with the words set in quotes.


Some experts encourage writers to avoid scare quotes because they can distance the writer and confuse the reader.

Editor Greil Marcus, in a talk at Case Western Reserve University, described scare quotes as "the enemy," adding that they "...kill narrative, they kill story-telling ... They are a writer’s assault on his or her own words." Scare quotes have been described as ubiquitous, and the use of them as expressing distrust in truth, reality, facts, reason and objectivity. Political commentator 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."

The philosopher David Stove examined the recent trend of using scare quotes in philosophy as a means of neutralizing or suspending words that imply cognitive achievement, such as knowledge or discovery.

In speech

In spoken conversation, a stand-in for scare quotes is a hand gesture known as air quotes or finger quotes, which mimics quotation marks.

A speaker may alternatively say "quote" before and "unquote" after quoted words, or say "quote unquote" before or after the quoted words, or simply pause before and emphasize the parts in quotes. This spoken method is also used for literal and conventional quotes.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Scare quotes" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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