Scare Quotes

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Wikipedia defines scare quotes as “quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to signal that a term is being used in a non-standard, ironic, or otherwise special sense.”

I’ve seen children experimenting with scare quotes they create with their fingers; using them accurately in a flash of insight and a prideful glimpse into adult conversation, and also completely inaccurately—with total obliviousness to the actual meaning of air quotes, regardless of how many times the concept has been explained and demonstrated.

But today I’m concerned with adult misuse of scare quotes, specifically with two direct quotes taken from emails.  I found these examples slightly confusing, and highly entertaining.   A little context for the first example: some middle school students were about to undergo end-of-semester exams, that would, for many students, determine if they would pass their classes.  Reducing the class failure rate was a main goal in the building that year.  The principal sent out a message to the staff that included the following line (repeated verbatim):

Please communicate with any students currently failing or close to failing your class and “encourage” them to finish strong.

What could this mean?  Are we supposed to “encourage” these failing students by not encouraging them at all?  Should the encouragement be sarcastic: “Yes, I’m sure that you’re going to do a great job on your final exams, seeing how wonderfully you’ve done so far this semester”.  Should we offer vailed threats: “You might want to do well on your exams… I would hate for something to happen to your family over Thanksgiving break”.  Or maybe we’re just supposed to give them the answers? Perhaps we should simply encourage them to do their best—no scare quotes necessary.

Sadly, the second example occurred after a tragic incident involving a student.  The school administration rightly sent out a message to the district touching on the situation, which included the following line:

Traumatic events “happen.”

Are the scare quotes included to suggest that traumatic events don’t happen?  Or that when traumatic events occur we shouldn’t use a passive verb like “happen” which may imply that no one is responsible, when surely traumatic events are always the result of some malicious agent?  Why would this fact be couched in air quotes, specifically after a traumatic event did in fact just occur? Maybe it would be easier to agree that traumatic events happen.



2 thoughts on “Scare Quotes

  1. Wow, it is really “scary” to think, prior to reading this review, I did not know what the words “scare quotes” meant! Said quickly, these two words sound so much like the the word “scarecrow,” I wondered if they had something to do with “scaring” birds away from a field where crops are “growing.” Thanks for setting me “straight!”


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