Improve Your Writing by Avoiding “Scare Quotes”

The other day I saw a sign in a shop window:

“Farm Fresh” “Chicken” $2.50/lb.

That didn’t inspire much confidence in me! Was the chicken really farm fresh? Was it even chicken, or was it some other mysterious substance? I decided to pick up some pork chops for dinner instead, and I started thinking about scare quotes. It’s easy for writers to give the wrong impression if they misuse these powerful little marks. This quick guide will help you drop the unnecessary quotes and start writing more clearly.

Quotation Marks and Scare Quotes

Quotation marks are most often used to report dialogue or repeat someone else’s exact words.

– “Let’s go to the beach this weekend,” John said.

Scare quotes are a specialized use of quotation marks. They are placed around a word or phrase to show that the author is using the term in an ironic, negative, non-literal or cynical way.

– When Alan came home from vacation, he discovered that his “friend” had stolen his entire CD collection.

– The popcorn was drenched in artificial “butter.”

– Sally makes $300,000 a year as a “lifestyle consultant” to movie stars in Los Angeles.

Some writers refer to scare quotes as “shudder quotes.” Whatever you call them, they’re the written equivalent of a sneer.

When Should I Avoid Shudder Quotes?

Scare quotes should be used very sparingly. Most important of all, they should never be used for emphasis. “Farm fresh” in quotes doesn’t mean especially farm fresh. It means the opposite. In many cases, words emphasized with quotation marks will tell your readers exactly what you don’t want them to hear.

– We are proud to offer service with a “smile.” (Expect plenty of eye-rolling.)

– We fix your phone “while you wait.” (You may be waiting for a while.)

– Enjoy our “authentic” French cuisine. (It comes straight from the microwave, and the chef has never been anywhere near Paris.)

What Can I Use For Emphasis Instead?

Your writing will improve as soon as you ditch the shudder quotes. If you want to emphasize certain ideas, try using vivid descriptions instead of quotation marks.

WRONG: Our ice cream is “fresh” and “tasty.”

BETTER: Our ice cream is fresh and tasty.

BEST: Our delicious ice cream is made with the freshest ingredients.

You can also draw attention to words by using italics.

– We’re proud to offer the freshest and tastiest ice cream in town.

Italics can be a great way to show emphasis. They’re perfect for a casual, informal context like the window of an ice cream shop. They may be less appropriate in a résumé or an academic research paper. (And don’t even think about using scare quotes in your résumé!)

Avoid Scare Quotes To Send the Right Message

Always think twice before using quotation marks in your writing. By paying attention to the proper use of scare quotes, you can avoid sending the wrong message to your readers.

Have you seen any outrageous misuses of shudder quotes lately? Share your favorites (or your “favorites”) with us in the comments.


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