Punctuation Tips: How to Use “Scare Quotes”
  • 4-minute read
  • 31st October 2019

Punctuation Tips: How to Use “Scare Quotes”

This Halloween, we’re looking at the spookiest punctuation mark… the scare quote! Okay, we might be stretching there. Scare quotes are neither spooky nor supernatural. In fact, the scariest thing about them is that they’re often used incorrectly, leading to errors in writing.

But what exactly are scare quotes? And when should you use them?

What Are Scare Quotes?

Usually, quote marks indicate that you’re using someone else’s words. In fiction, they’re also used for spoken dialogue.

But neither of these are what people mean by “scare quotes.” Instead, these quote marks show we’re using a word in a non-literal sense. This includes:

  • Showing that a term is non-standard, colloquial, or slang.
  • Indicating that you are using a term ironically.
  • Expressing disapproval over how a word has been used.

For example, if we disagreed with someone’s advice, we might write:

Many “experts” offer bad advice on punctuation.

Here, we’ve put the word “experts” in quote marks to show that we think the people offering bad advice are not experts at all. This is a bit like adding “so-called” in front of a word to indicate disapproval or doubt.

You can also use scare quotes to introduce borrowed terminology:

This is reminiscent of what Max Weber called “elective affinities.”

For instance, we’re not quoting a specific line from one of Weber’s published works above. Nor are we expressing disapproval of how Weber used “elective affinities.” Rather, we’ve put quote marks around the term to show we’ve taken it from somewhere else rather than inventing it.

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This is an acceptable usage, but you should only use quote marks around a term like this when you first introduce it. After that, your reader will know where it came from, so further “scare quotes” are redundant.

Style Guides and Scare Quoting

As with most aspects of writing, different style guides have different rules about scare quotes. As such, if you’re working to a style guide, make sure to look for advice about this kind of punctuation.

For now, let’s look at how three major style guides approach this issue:

  • APA – The APA recommends using scare quotes “To introduce a word or phrase used as an ironic comment, as slang, or as an invented or coined expression. Use quotation marks the first time the word or phrase is used; thereafter, do not use quotation marks.”
  • Chicago – The CMoS says quote marks can be “used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense,” but it also warns that “scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”
  • MLA – The MLA says scare quotes “distance an author from a term” to show irony, skepticism, or derision. However, they also “recommend against using them” and suggest “using them sparingly and with explanation” if you do decide to use them anywhere in your writing.

In general, then, scare quotes are accepted by these style guides. However, they all also warn against overusing quote marks of this type.

Top Tips for “Scare Quoting”

As you may have gathered from the information above, the meaning of a “scare quote” can depend on the context. Some authors only use them to express disapproval. But if you’re simply borrowing someone else’s terminology, the quotation marks don’t have to suggest irony.

A scary quote, but not a scare quote.
A scary quote, but not a scare quote.

In addition, overuse can make a document look messy. Thus, you should always use scare quotes sparingly and, even then, only if you’re sure your reader will understand why you are using them.

If you do scare quote, though, make sure to follow these handy tips:

  • NEVER use scare quotes for emphasis.
  • Make sure your reader can tell you’re not quoting something directly.
  • If you introduce a borrowed term, only use quote marks the first time.
  • Do not use both “so-called” and scare quotes for a single word.

And if you need help with the punctuation – scary or otherwise – in a document you’ve written, just let us know.

Comments (10)
Evelyn Knight
3rd March 2021 at 05:15
what punctuation mark should I use if i would like to mention a foreign language like patola a tagalog name for a vegetable?
    Proofed
    3rd March 2021 at 09:28
    Hi, Evelyn. The common convention is to italicize non-English words to show they come from another language. You can find out a bit more about it here: https://proofed.com/writing-tips/when-to-use-italics-in-your-writing/
    Anna
    8th September 2021 at 23:15
    If using a scare quote in a prepositional phrase, does the comma go inside the quotation mark?
      Proofed
      9th September 2021 at 09:02
      Hi, Anna. Can you give an example? You wouldn't usually need a comma for a prepositional phrase, so it's hard to know entirely what to recommend here, but, generally speaking, scare quotes follow the same rules as other quotation marks (i.e., in US English, you would place a subsequent comma or period inside the closing quotation mark).
clark
27th December 2021 at 18:23
I think I know the answer but wanted to check. What do you do with the period if the scare quote is at the end of the sentence? Ex. He called himself an "expert." (period inside the quote - I think this is correct) OR He called himself an "expert". (period outside the quote - I think this is incorrect, but tbh this feels better to me because the period is not part of the scare quote... but I don't get to make the rules here so I figured I'd ask).
    Proofed
    4th January 2022 at 11:22
    Hi, Clark. In American English, periods always go inside closing quotation marks (including with scare quotes). This varies in other dialects, including British English, where you only include a period inside a closing quotation mark when it is part of the thing being quoted. To use your example: US English = He called himself an “expert.” British English = He called himself an 'expert'.
      M
      28th January 2022 at 03:39
      Does your answer change at all if the scare quoted material comes at the end of a question? E.g., He asked: How can you prove that you "made it?" OR He asked: How can you prove that you "made it"?
      Proofed
      28th January 2022 at 10:38
      Hi, M. The rules of question marks and exclamation marks and quotations are a little different, as they go inside the closing quotation mark only when they are part of the thing being quoted (you can find more on that here). With scare quotes, that will rarely apply, so question marks will usually fall outside the closing quotation mark: e.g., How can you prove that you “made it”? In addition, you would usually use a comma rather than a colon to introduce a quotation after "asked" (or similar words, such as "said"). And, assuming everything after asked is itself meant to be dialogue or a quotation, you would need to put that in quote marks and use inverted commas for the scare quote: He asked, "How can you prove that you 'made it'?" Here, you can see that the closing inverted comma comes before the question mark (since the scare quote isn't a question), but the closing quotation mark for the speech as a whole comes after the question mark since the overall sentence is a question.
Lori
13th January 2022 at 17:23
I am in the process of editing an old manuscript that my grandmother wrote. In the following example would the comma go inside or outside the quotation marks? Mrs. O’Brien tried to soothe the baby by a motion known as “jiggling”, disapproved of by the professionals.
    Proofed
    14th January 2022 at 09:37
    Hi, Lori. In American English, commas and periods always go inside closing quotation marks. As such, the correct punctuation for the sentence you give would be: Mrs. O’Brien tried to soothe the baby by a motion known as “jiggling,” disapproved of by the professionals.

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