The Grammarphobia Blog

Are scare quotes scary?

Q: Is there any legitimate reason for using single quotation marks, other than when a quote appears within another quote? I often see single quotation marks used to warn readers about a questionable term or simply to highlight a term.

A: In American usage, single quotation marks are generally used in prose for one purpose only: to surround a quotation nested within a larger quotation: “Was it Linus who said, ‘Get lost’?” asked Lucy.

There are exceptions in certain kinds of specialized writing, which we’ll get to later. And single quotation marks are generally used in headlines.

But the warning quotes you’re referring to, sometimes called “scare quotes,” should always be double quotes, not singletons, in American writing.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains the legitimate use of scare quotes:

“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.”

Here are the examples given (we’ll put them in italics to avoid confusing things with our own punctuation):

On a digital music player, a “track” is really just a separately encoded file in a directory.

“Child protection” sometimes fails to protect.

Another respected authority, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.), has these examples:

A silver dome concealed the robot’s “brain.”

Their “friend” brought about their downfall. 

All of those are perfectly justifiable uses of quotation marks, because the term in quotes is highlighted for a good reason—to warn the reader to be wary of it.

But sometimes writers (particularly sign painters!) use quotes merely to highlight terms, as in these examples:

“Fast” and “friendly” service! … Our bread is baked “fresh” daily … Employees must “wash hands.” … “Delivery” available.

We think a writer who wants to boast about a word or merely emphasize it should find another way—italics, perhaps, or a different size type. The quote marks imply that the words aren’t meant literally.

However, the lexicographer Grant Barrett defends the use of quotes for emphasis—a usage he refers to as “shout quotes.” In a May 14, 2008, post on his blog, he argues that it’s unlikely readers would misunderstand them.

By the way, the use of the phrase “scare quotes” in this sense is relatively recent, showing up in the mid-20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1956 issue of the journal Mind: The ‘scare-quotes’ are mine; Aristotle is not overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens.’ ”

An earlier use of the phrase, from Southern California: An Island on the Land, a 1946 book by Carey McWilliams, refers to quotations that can be used against a political candidate.

McWilliams writes that “the best advertising brains in California were put to work culling scare-quotes” from the candidate’s writings.

But let’s get back to single quotation marks. As we’ve said above and as we’ve written before on our blog, they’re sometimes used in a couple of specialized fields.

Horticultural writing is one of them. Some publications in the field, like the magazine Horticulture, use single quotation marks around the names of cultivars, the Chicago Manual says.

And in another horticultural exception to normal American usage, Chicago adds, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” Here’s the example given (we’ll use boldface here, since the illustration includes italics):

The hybrid Agastache ‘Apricot Sunrise’, best grown in zone 6, mingles with sheaves of cape fuchsia (Phygelius ‘Salmon Leap’).

There’s another kind of specialized writing in which single quotation marks appear.

“In linguistic and phonetic studies,” the Chicago Manual says, “a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks,” and here again, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” This is the example given:

The gap is narrow between mead ‘a beverage’ and mead ‘a meadow’.

But unless you’re writing about horticulture, linguistics, or phonetics, the convention in American usage is to use double quotation marks (except for internal quotes) and to keep commas and periods inside final quote marks. The Chicago Manual gives this example of the normal usage:

“Admit it,” she said. “You haven’t read ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ ”

Keep in mind that so far we’ve been discussing American-style punctuation. In British usage, single quotation marks are  more widely used.

As the Chicago Manual says, “The practice in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is often the reverse” of that found in American usage. Single quotation marks may come first, with double marks used for quotations within quotations.

For example, if Lucy and Linus had been characters in a British novel, that quote we cited above (from Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I, 3rd ed.) might have looked like this:

‘Was it Linus who said, “Get lost”?’ asked Lucy.

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