Scare quotes: be very afraid

I’m no ‘expert’, I’ll admit, but ‘I know a thing or two’, as they say; and I get a little antsy on encountering ‘writers’ who throw quote marks around literally ‘everything’ in order to sound a note of ‘irony’ or sow doubt beneath words, thereby insinuating that what ‘seems’ to be so is, in fact, ‘not’.

Scare quotes are addictive: once you’re hooked, you can’t stop using them, and they’ll poison your writing. Stay clear of them.

As Megan Garber points out in The Atlantic, scare quotes ‘do precisely the opposite of what quotation marks are supposed to do’. See what I did there? I quoted her, and the punctuation tells you that those were her precise words. Trust and transparency. By contrast, scare quotes will leave the reader floundering, wondering what on earth the writer truly means. It’s a pointless game of multi-bluff with no resolution. Greil Marcus recalls how he and his colleagues would simply remove other writers’ scare quotes, and find that ‘what remained was what the writer was actually trying to say’. They would seek permission first before removing them, and the writers would say, ‘over and over, yes. It was as if we were disarming them of a weapon they had aimed at themselves.’ To test his point, we could strip all of the scare quotes out of my (admittedly facile) opening paragraph and, yes, it would say exactly what I’d intended of it.

In summary, there is almost never a good time to add quote marks unless you are quoting someone directly.

Bear in mind, this still allows you to weaponize someone’s words against them. If a president says on record, ‘I’m a really smart guy,’ but goes on to do something unutterably stupid, then you know what to do.

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