Monday, 18 June 2012

'Scare quotes'

Lately I've seen two very effective uses of scare quotes - the quotation marks you put round a word or phrase to indicate to your reader that you don't mean the word or phrase literally. 

There's a whole blog of scare quotes used wrongly or with unintended effect, including examples like this one:

This is the equivalent of doing the bunny-ears gesture when you say something (and it's weird that I just defined a writing convention by the gesture that clearly arose from the written form). 

Anyway. So there's this sign up in my department, because someone's phone is 'lost'. (I've removed the person's details so as, you know, not to put people's phone numbers on the internet without their consent, but if you've seen the phone let me know and I'll pass it on.) The sign looks like this:

Those magnificent scare quotes around lost convey, perfectly, this person's passive-agressive attitude to this: the phone is not lost, it has been stolen, but because the sign-maker has no evidence for this, he will keep up the pretence that it is merely lost. But you know who you are, phone-pincher.

The other scare quotes I saw this week performed a very different function. Our region is switching over to digital TV in September, and so 'they' (don't know who is in charge of this) have sent us a booklet telling us what will happen and what we need to do. One of the things we might need to do, if we have outmoded equipment, is buy a new telly. Luckily we're OK, but there might be some old people who need to buy a digibox but don't have a SCART socket on their telly (stay with me, we're going somewhere). The booklet tells them that if this is the case, they need to ask for a digibox with an 'RF modulator'. In scare quotes. This tells the reader, effectively,
Don't worry, we know all these technical terms are meaningless. You don't need to know what it is, just ask for this and you'll be given the right thing. 
The same punctuation mark, used in two different ways, to such different effect.

In the 'lost' sign, it's almost like lost and stolen are scalar implicatures, which means that stolen is a type of lost but more specific. If a phone is stolen it is also lost, but if it is lost it is not stolen (by implicature, as you would say stolen if you meant it, because you use the strongest term on the scale that is true).

In the second case, it's the use of quotation marks in the same way we might use them in academic or technical texts, when you use a term and need to show that you're using it as a term, for the first time. It's interesting, actually, that this is a type of punctuation that doesn't seem to need much explicit teaching. It must be an intuitive thing. Which might, of course, lead to the signs on the blog I mentioned earlier - the writers think they are defining terms, although they aren't really. The writer of the sign above thinks he needs to point out that (s)he is using the term 'urine drops'. Although why the writer felt the need to use the term 'urine drops' I really don't know.


  1. Urine drops will never catch on. Lemon and pear pretty much have the market sewn up between them.

  2. I think 'lost' in the example above is a really nice use of scare quotes in (what I would think of as) their main function. Pragmatically they are interesting, as you said, but the picture is perhaps confused by their use as typographical marks of emphasis -- maybe that's what's going on in "urine drops"; see, e.g.

    I regularly walk past a house with a sign in the window that says "4 bed property" (the whole thing in double quotes). It amuses me to think of this as being a quotation from the best review the house ever received.

    1. Ha - that's funny. Yeah, I know they're generally assumed to be emphasis, and that's what a lot of the ones on that blog seem to be, but it's not the case for all of them. A clear example where it is is a photo I've seen of a noticeboard with a sign saying:

      Please "do not" use staples for posting

      And underneath, someone has put a sign saying:

      Please do not use quotation marks for emphasis

      Honestly, I don't know what's going on with "urine drops" - that's just a bizarre sign from start to finish. The examples in the LL post you mention of 'Create "a" salad' is fun - that could be like an extension of the marks round 'n' (eg wash 'n' go). A single-letter word in the middle of a 3-word phrase just seems to need some kind of emphasis.

  3. what i am looking for now is WHO coined the term? name? and what year?
    ANd what does the word SCARE mean here in SCARE QUOTE, why SCARE?

    any guess? maybe Anu can do a story on this mystery?

    DAN BLOOM in Taiwan

    On Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 7:05 AM, wrote:
    > ------------------------------------------
    > From: Anu Garg > Subject: Re: FW: anybody want to tackle OREGINS of "scare quote" as newsroom
    > term? i got smoking gun here, ask me who told me this! top lexiogrpaher!
    > Hi Eric,
    > WIkipedia has a fairly detailed discussion:
    > Best,
    > Anu
    > On Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 10:37 PM, >> Hi Anu. Can you answer Dan Bloom's question? Dan is an American
    >> journalist living in Taiwan.
    >> Cheers, Eric.
    >> ------------------------------------------
    >> ;
    >> Subject: anybody want to tackle OREGINS of "scare quote" as newsroom term?
    >> i
    >> got smoking gun here, ask me who told me this! top lexiogrpaher!
    >> anybody want to tackle OREGINS of "scare quote" as newsroom term? i
    >> got smoking gun here, ask me who told me this! top lexiogrpaher!
    >> On Jun 18, 2012, at 10:06 PM, Dan Bloom wrote:
    >> > DANNY AKS
    >> WHEN?
    >> OED2 draft addition Sept. 2004 has it from 1956; the first two cites
    >> are both from philosophers:
    >> 1956 Mind 65 3 The ?scare-quotes? are mine; Aristotle is not
    >> overtly discussing the expression ?whichever happens?.
    >> 1960 P. T. Geach in M. Brand Nature of Human Action (1970) 119
    >> Someone..might use ?happy?, in scare-quotes so to say, to mean ?what
    >> most people count happy, that is rich?.
    >> (but that doesn't tell you who coined it -- and it could have been a
    >> translation from another language, like German)

  4. those examples above you give are not really scare quotes, or what i now call ''quote-unquote quotes'' -- google my new coinage -- those words in quotes in your examples are called "greengrocer quotes in UK and Mendacity Quotes also and real name is "emphasis quotes", used like underlining or italics or boldface.

  5. What is the proper usage of "quote unquote," as in "Bob told me he's
    quote unquote semi-retired?" I would imagine it's "...quote semi-retired
    unquote," although I almost never hear it used that way. The first usage
    seems a lot more popular.

    Sure does. There's a reason, of course. As you surmise, the two ways of making verbal quotes are identical in intent, and in fact identical with the gesture of drawing "quotes" in the air with one's index and middle fingers (the "V" fingers) on both hands. This may be just an American gesture, but I suspect it's common enough. This is often accompanied by an "ironic" intonation on the item that is to be "quoted" in any of these usages.
    The pragmatic sense is to bracket the item in question in exactly the same way philosophers do with what they call "scare quotes", that is, a warning that the writer does not take responsibility for the correctness of any description, thus effectively saying the writer believes something like the reverse of the description.

    But this is a convention of written language. What you describe is one way that spoken English can also avail itself of that convention. It can provide "quotes" by saying quote. Rather like Lisp. Cool.

    Now what about the unquote? If you have a lengthy quotation, you need to know where both ends are. So we say unquote at the end (incidentally making spoken English more like printing -- where the beginning and ending quotation marks are different -- than like ASCII, where they're identical). Lisp doesn't need to mark the end of the quote; this is where all those parentheses come in handy. Also cool.

    However, if you are doing scare quotes in speech, and thereby taking your chances with the listener's short-term memory, chances are you're targeting only one word or phrase -- one phonological unit in any case -- and you don't really need to mark the end; it's obvious. All you really need is a marker at the beginning to warn your parter to listen ironically.

    So "quote-unquote" becomes a compound prefixal particle, and you don't have to worry about the other shoe falling. Much the same fate overtook the as far as ... is concerned/goes constructions, and the so [Adjective] that ... construction. The last parts of these are simply dropped in many cases. And I've heard people say just "quote" (without the "-unquote") in this usage, as well as the doublet.

    As far as usage of the construction is concerned, I'd say it's gone too far to separate the two now. Besides, it sounds insufferably pedantic to insist on quote word unquote; and -- the clincher -- you would never write it, because you could use real quotes. So it's exclusively colloquial, and "proper" written usage is therefore irrelevant, because there isn't any.

    That's why it sounds better. As Peter Schickele says (about music), if it sounds good, it is good.

  6. The urine drops example, as J says above, may well be greengrocers quotes (a less-common name for emphasis quotes), but the 'lost phone' example is not - it's got a further level of meaning, the one in which "it may not signify its apparent meaning or that it is not necessarily the way the quoting person would express its concept", exactly as the Wikipedia article you provide on scare quotes describes. The 'RF modulator' use is the 'neutral distancing' one on the Wikipedia page (special terminology).

    None of them is 'mendacity quotes', coined by GK Pullum on Language Log as a semi-humorous way to refer to the quotes used in newspapers headlines to indicate the part of the material that isn't actually in the article (the "practice of making up an expression and putting it in single quotation marks in the headline").

    Your discussion of 'quote-unquote quotes' seems to be from John Lawler's page; please cite authors if you quote them (and use quotation marks in their traditional way!)

  7. Who's afraid of a silly old 'scare quote'?

    by Danny Bloom
    Tufts 1971, - Danny Bloom is a freelance writer based in Taiwan, where the mysteries of the English language still confound him.

    I'm not much a style guy and newspaper style guides don't interest me all that much, but as the coiner of "crash blossoms" and a few other newspaper terms over the past few years -- ''snailpapers'' for print editions arrive 12 hours late, for example -- I have recently taken a keen interest in the term "scare quotes."

    You know what a "scare quote" is, although you might call it something else. Sotaro Shibahara in Toronto tells me he calls them "rabbit ear quotes" and notes: "I didn't know they were called 'scare quotes'. I usually call them 'rabbit-ear' quotes, because of the twin forefinger and middle finger V-sign that is crooked to signify 'air quotation marks.' When I am writing, I write '(quote-unquote)' -- with parentheses -- if I am trying to distance myself from what I'm quoting. Or I write 'so-called' before the quote if it's a quote, phrase or terminology that I don't necessarily agree with. My sister and my father call fair-weather friends 'rabbit-eared friends'.
    My sister and my dad call fair-weather friends 'rabbit-eared friends'."

    I had never really paid attention to this "scare quotes" term until I began seeing it everywhere in print -- and online -- over the past few years. So as a natural-born word coiner, I began to wonder who coined the term, when and where, under what circumstances, and not only what does it mean, but is the word "scare" part of the phrase?

    Therefore I turned to some style guides. The 15th edition of the Chicago Style Manual One notes the term exists but cautions against its overuse in section 7.58: "Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense ...and imply 'This is not my term' or 'This is not how the term is usually (italics) applied.' Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused."

    Maybe one could put it another way: when overused, scare quotes lose their original ''raison d'etre'' and scare the heck out of people, especially if readers have no idea what the term means.

    Which brings me to my "real" question here: why are they called "scare" quotes? As for ''who'' coined the now-ubiquitous term and when, I believe the answer is lost in the "mists" of time. Or should be that "in the midst of time"?

    When I asked a Stanford University language maven about this, he told me he found two references online that explain a bit of the puzzle, noting that one is from 1956 and the other from 1960.

  8. I like "sneer quotes" better. I heard John Stewart refer to them as "d*ck quotes", which is even more apt in some circumstances, but polite company is not one of them. :-) – T.E.D. just told me 6 mins ago..

    and Dr Marjorie Garber at Harvard just told me: ''See OED, under "scare"

    Draft additions September 2004

    scare quotes n. quotation marks used to foreground a particular word or phrase, esp. with the intention of disassociating the user from the expression or from some implied connotation it carries.
    1956 Mind 65 3 The ‘scare-quotes’ are mine; Aristotle is not overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens’.
    1960 P. T. Geach in M. Brand Nature of Human Action (1970) 119 Someone..might use ‘happy’, in scare-quotes so to say, to mean ‘what most people count happy, that is rich’.
    2001 Isis 92 177/2 Magnetism, we are told, was a discipline at the crossroad of science and ‘pre-science’ (her scare quotes) at the end of the sixteenth century.

    Note: this is an English language usage. If you are interested in Derrida's practice you will need to look at the texts in the original French language editions. There's no indication at all that Derrida would have coined this English term, especially in or prior to 1956, many years before he emerged as a prominent theorist.''

    and Frank Nuessel said to me just now
    Dear Dan, There are numerous notes about scare quotes on the Internet. The Wiki discussion is a useful overview. I have never used the term myself, though I have heard it (including a reference from a now deceased journalist ). As a linguist, I use single quotes for a gloss of a word from another language. With increasing frequency, I am hearing the expression "air quotes" in which a person uses the index finger and middle finger of both hands at the level of the head to indicate a quote. Sometimes it is used with the expression "quote-unquote". It tends to have an ironic meaning in many contexts. Here are some other sources: You provide two sources with possible origins of the expression. This is all that I have at the moment. Best wishes, Frank Frank NuesselProfessorModern LanguagesDivision of HumanitiesUniversity of Louisville

  9. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scare Quotes But Were Too Scared to Ask

    Mark Reed says it's called a "scare quote" because it connotes that the quoted item is somehow "scary" -- nonstandard, abnormal, different in a somewhat threatening way, and that social activists might call it ''lexical Othering''. John Lawler says popular phrases are rarely "coined" by a single person and nobody ''knows'' who the first person to say or write ''scare quotes'' was. Stan Carey says that scare quotes are placed around words or phrases from which writers want to distance themselves. Geoff Pullum in Britain calls them mendacity quotes and says he has also heard the term "Greengrocer's quotes". Stan Carey says that usage may be colloquial, slang, technical, inaccurate, euphemistic, misleading or inappropriate, and that the writer usually wants to distance himself or herself from it, or, perhaps to suggest irony, skepticism, distaste or outright derision. Jameela Lares says good luck on trying to tracking down the origins and ''first coiner'' of the ''scare quotes'' term. Jon Stewart says he calls them "dick quotes". Ellen Markette says that anyone continuing to investigate who coined the term 'scare quotes' (and when, 1956? 1945? 1883?) is not engaging in a productive query since it has no answer. Arnold Zwicky says he found two references to scare quotes online that date as far back as 1956 and 1960. The Chicago Style Manual says not to overuse them, noting: 'Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused." Adam Levin says they are devices, instruments, Safirian markups. Sotaro Shibahara says he calls them "rabbit ear quotes." Other people say they call them sneer quotes,
    horror quotes, queer quotes, air quotes and quote-unquote quotes. Colin Fine says it's rare to be able to pinpoint the individual who first used a word in a particular meaning, and equally rare to be able to do more than speculate about exactly what mental picture or association they had when they made that innovation. Stan Carey says he has heard them referred to as hedge quotes. Mark Bauerlein says he used to use the term often in talking about the language of literary criticism. Ana Marie Cox says she used the term when she was a graduate student. Hugo says the term ''appears'' to have originated amongst British logical philosophers in the late 1950s and early 1960s and notes that according to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest known use is from Mind 65 in 1956. Hugo says that from 1965 to 1970, some 20 other books, spreading from logical philosophy to ethics, theology, political and legal philosophy, political science, language and metaphysics, and that the term spread out from Britain to America and Australia.

  10. Dan, your subsequent comments are not showing up for some reason. In any case, I think we've exhausted this subject, don't you? The last comment you posted included quite a lot of repeated information, so I think we should leave it there. You won't find the original coiner, because apart from some very few terms coined in print ('crash blossom', coined on Language Log, and 'chortle', coined by Lewis Carroll, spring to mind) it's simply not documented.