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.