flock of birds

“Scary” Punctuation: The Origins, Use, and Abuse of Scare Quotes

By Susan Doose

For those wordsmiths and linguaphiles among us, there seems no more fitting way to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve than with a tribute to the most “frightening” of punctuation marks—scare quotes. Unlike ordinary quotation marks, scare quotes may be used to convey an ironic, skeptical, or even derisive stance toward the word or phrase they enclose; they signal a nonstandard use, which often requires a reader to read between the lines to intuit the particular sense intended by the author.

The term scare quotes was coined by the Cambridge philosophy professor Elizabeth Anscombe in her 1956 essay “Aristotle and the Sea Battle” (Garber). However, the use of these unwieldy punctuation marks can be traced to the second century BC: to ancient Greece and “the diple periestigmene (⸖), or ‘dotted diple,’” a proofreading symbol concocted by a librarian named Aristarchus, who used it to identify passages where he disagreed with the reading of another critic (Houston).   

Scare quotes—or, if you prefer, “shudder quotes” or “sneer quotes” (Garber)—have come a long way since the time of Aristarchus, but knowing their original purpose should remind us that they are used to establish difference. While not exactly “scary,” these mischievous cousins of the quotation mark may become problematic, especially with overuse. Rather than trick your readers—however unwitting this may be—give them the treat of unequivocal, clearly discernible intent. If you still feel compelled to use them, do so mindfully, and in moderation.  

Works Cited

Garber, Megan. “The Scare Quote: 2016 in a Punctuation Mark.” The Atlantic, 23 Dec. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/12/the-scare-quote-2016-in-a-punctuation-mark/511319/

Houston, Keith. “The Long and Fascinating History of Quotation Marks.” Slate, 30 Jan. 2015, slate.com/human-interest/2015/01/quotation-marks-long-and-fascinating-history-includes-arrows-diples-and-inverted-commas.html

Published 31 October 2019

1 comment on ““Scary” Punctuation: The Origins, Use, and Abuse of Scare Quotes”

Join the Conversation

We invite you to comment on this post and exchange ideas with other site visitors. Comments are moderated and subject to the terms of service.

If you have a question for the MLA’s editors, submit it to Ask the MLA!

Fields marked with * are required.

Your e-mail address will not be published.

Get MLA Style News from The Source

Be the first to read new posts and updates about MLA style.

The Source Sign-up - Style Center Footer