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Watch Out for "Scare" Quotes


To communicate that something is novel, ironic or nontraditional, a writer may use what are commonly called scare quotes. For example: My sister has a “fit” each time she thinks she won’t get what she wants from our mother. In this case, the scare quotes make us understand that the fit isn’t real and is done only to influence the mother’s decisions.

But, be careful! I often see beginning writers using quotation marks on single words taken from short stories or articles studied in my English classes. To do so makes writers appear to be sarcastic or ironic in their use of the term.

If you do not intend to be ironic, then best to use italics (if you need to identify a word used in a special way) or, better yet, no special marks at all (since my usual rule is that anything three words or more needs to be quoted when referring to a piece of writing).

(April 3, 2011)

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