language corner

‘Scare’ tactics

Quotes around single words
January 28, 2013

It’s Journalism 101: go out and talk to people, then write down what they say. If you can’t quote it all, use partial quotations.

That last tactic can backfire, though.

The headline on Associated Press article about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis said:

Jackie’s antiquated views ‘horrified’ grandkids

The article began:

Caroline Kennedy says her daughters were “absolutely horrified” by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ old-fashioned view of the role of women in taped interviews released this week.

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A bit later, it said Caroline Kennedy called “her mother’s remarks ‘honest.'”

The writer chose not to use longer quotations, but the gist of the matter seems clear, even with a word or two in quotation marks.

Then there was the letter to the editor, headlined:

Catholic Church should be ‘horrified’ about other things

That letter, about an article in which a church official was one-word-quoted as being “horrified” that it might be forced to pay for contraceptives, said, in part:

Members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy didn’t seem to be “horrified” by the systemic criminal cover-up of those priests who sexually abused little kids. Nor are they “horrified” by the fact that most Roman Catholics of child-bearing age simply ignore their church’s ban on contraceptive use.

The writer here seems to be quoting the church in a way that questions its use of “horrified.” If this letter were a video, we might see the writer making quotation marks in the air each time he said “horrified. Those “air quotes” are a visual clue to viewers that he’s criticizing the church’s view over what should “horrify” it.

Those written versions of “air quotes” are called “scare quotes,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “quotation marks used to express especially skepticism or derision concerning the use of the enclosed word or phrase.”

Not every one- or two-word quotation is a “scare quote,” of course. Sometimes those short quotations are used as this column uses them, to highlight the term under discussion. Sometimes they’re used to introduce an unfamiliar term, as in “a so-called ‘fiscal cliff.'” But that usage is fraught: Some style guides note that the use of “so-called” already provides the “introduction,” so the quote marks around the actual term are redundant. And “so-called” can also be considered as similar to scare quotes themselves: “My so-called boyfriend cheated on me again.”

While M-W traces the first usage of “scare quotes” to 1960, they have exploded in recent years, being brought to bear especially in politics, as “liberal” and “conservative” campaigns used their own “scare” tactics.

It’s important, therefore, to be sure that the context of any very short quotation makes clear whether you’re trying to “scare” anyone. And beware of the cliché factor. The Chicago Manual of Style says:

Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply, “This is not my term” or “This is not how the term is usually applied.” Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.

Sometimes “scare quotes” will appear with only single quotations around them, as ‘smart’ writers think it will show that they’re not being ‘serious.’ Sorry, but except in certain linguistic and scientific contexts, or as quotations within another quotation and in some publications’ headlines, as above, quotations always take double quote marks. Using single quote marks to try to convey tone is really scary.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.