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The use of quotation marks can be extended to cases which are not exactly
direct quotations. Here is an example:
The phrase in quote marks is not a quotation from anyone in particular, but
merely a term which is used by some people in this case, linguists. What the
writer is doing here is distancing himself from the term in quotes. That is, he's
saying "Look, that's what they call it. I'm not responsible for this term." In
this case, there is no suggestion that the writer disapproves of the phrase in
quotes, but very often there is a suggestion of disapproval:
- Linguists sometimes employ a technique they call "inverted
Once again, the writer's quotes mean "this is their term, not mine", but
there is definitely a hint of a sneer: the writer is implying that, although the
Institute may call their course "self-awareness exercises", what they're
offering to do is to take your money in exchange for a lot of hot air.
- The Institute for Personal Knowledge is now offering a course in
Quotation marks used in this way are informally called scare quotes.
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. Quite often scare quotes are used to express
irony or sarcasm:
The point here is that the town has been officially declared a safe haven by the
UN, whereas in fact, as the quote marks make clear, it is anything but safe.
Here's another example:
- The Serbs are closing in on the "safe haven" of Gora^@de.
The phrase `adult films' is the industry's conventional label for pornographic
films, and here the writer is showing that she recognizes this phrase as nothing
more than a dishonest euphemism.
- Sharon Stone made dozens of "adult films" before getting her
It is important to realize this distancing effect of scare quotes. Quotation
marks are not properly used merely in order to draw attention to words, and all
those pubs which declare We Sell "Traditional Pub Food" are unwittingly
suggesting to a literate reader that they are in fact serving up microwaved
Some writers perhaps take the use of scare quotes a little too far:
Here the writer is doing something rather odd: she is using the phrase `ripped
off', but at the same time she is showing her distaste for this phrase by
wrapping it in quotes. Perhaps she regards it as too slangy, or as too
American. Using scare quotes like this is the orthographic equivalent of
holding the phrase at arm's length with one hand and pinching your nose with
- I have just been "ripped off" by my insurance company.
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.
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997