Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Not me.
People who know me, whether in person or online, know that I have long been among the most steadfast opponents of so-called scare quotes. I felt that if you were going to use a word, you should own your usage of the word and not try to distance yourself from that usage via erroneous punctuation. While more intelligent heads may still find that line of reasoning compelling or even dispositive, it has become clear to me that a significant majority of writers, and even speakers, of English have come to accept the use of scare quotes as valid and even correct. And, of course, if the majority does something, it must be right, so I have decided to drop my long-held opposition and "embrace" the scare quote. See, that wasn't so hard. I only had to linger over that last sentence for a fortnight before typing the opening quotation marks. The close quotes took a month, but Rome wasn't built in a day. So much for Roman efficiency. Um, I mean "efficiency."

But I digress. Since we're "opening" the "floodgates" to the use of "scare" quotes, I think we should come to some sort of agreement on when they're "appropriate." And I say the more "inclusive" we are, the "better," so let's go ahead and "enumerate" the "instances" where "scare" quotes can be used.

1. Irony. Well, this is pretty obvious, isn't it? If you want to say what you don't mean instead of what you do mean, you use the quotes. Example: That last post was "brilliant."
2. Humor. Let's say you want to be funny, but you're really not very good at it. Just put some quotes around one or more words, and people will know to laugh. Example: Why did the pervert cross the road? He was "stuck" in the chicken.
3. Ambiguity. This covers a lot of ground. Some words have multiple meanings. "Cleave," for example, can mean either to hold close or to separate. Why take a chance? Just use the "scare" quotes. Also, some words are frequently misused. "Nonplussed," for example, means upset or disconcerted, but people often use it to mean the exact opposite of what it means. So just go ahead and throw the scare quotes around any word that you're not sure people will know the meaning of. I know that covers a lot of words, but this is one of those cases where an excess of caution is the way to go.

Definitely not me.
4. Uncertainty. Let's say you just don't know "le mot juste." Why bother with dictionaries or, heaven forfend, a thesaurus. Just get as close as you can to the meaning you want, throw in some scare quotes, and people can figure out the rest by context. Example: I like your "thing" there.
5. Cleverness. This usage is very similar to humor, but the effects are different. If you're really just not as smart or, especially, as witty as you'd like to be, throw in a few scare quotes -- especially in unexpected places -- and your friends' and/or readers' eyebrows will rise at your obvious brilliance. Example: Why did the pervert "cross" the road? He was stuck "in" the chicken.
6. Vastness. Some concepts are too big to be adequately expressed in "words." The word we use to express such a concept is even more of an abstraction than other words are, so let's acknowledge the abstraction with some scare quotes. The most common examples are "God," "god," and "love," but I think we can all agree that other words -- most notably "sex" and "chocolate" -- qualify.

You get extra "credit" for expanding the usage of scare quotes back to where they originally came from, i.e., the "art" of "conversation." Just hold up the forefinger and middle finger (hint: don't forget the forefinger!) of both hands, and waggle them while speaking the word or words that you wish to make ironic, humorous, ambiguous, uncertain, clever, "and/or" vast. The next time, for example, you're sharing a tender moment with the object of your affections, free your hands and say, "I [begin fingers in air] love [end fingers in air] you."

I guarantee that your next moments of "intimacy" will be "interesting."

Still not me.

1 comment:

  1. I think my favorite is when the author is using le mot juste and puts quotes. You know, when they just want to "emphasize" and seem to have forgotten the usual techniques of italicizing, bolding, or even the dreaded *double asterisk*.