Monday 14 November 2016

It's Scary Stuff

By Iola Goulton

Today I’m going to be talking about some scary things. No, not Halloween, spiders, cockroaches, critiques, reviews, speaking in public or any of the other things which might scare writers. My topic is far more mundane (but I got you interested, didn’t I?).

Scare Quotes

“Scare quotes” is the official name given by style manuals to the little quote marks used to emphasis certain words or phrases.

Think of scare quotes as the written equivalent of air quotes—a phrase which itself only originate in 1989, and may well be a bastardisation of scare quotes along the lines of nek minnit:

The Chicago Manual of Style defines scare quotes as quotation marks which are “often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense”. The example given is that “child protection” sometimes fails to protect.

Wikipedia broadly agrees with CMOS and aligns scare quotes with air quotes, saying air quotes “are often used to express satire, sarcasm, irony or euphemism, among others, and are analogous to scare quotes in print.”

So if you’re using a term in the sense that contemporary readers would normally understand that term, don’t use scare quotes. It will only confuse your readers. Saying your character is an honest bookmaker implies he doesn’t cheat his clients; saying he is an “honest” bookmaker implies he cheats his clients, but perhaps no more than any other bookmaker.

Another example: traditional publishing usually describes a system whereby authors submit their work to publishers, who publish and pay royalties based on the sale of the book (and may also pay an advance against those future royalties). This is more correctly called trade publishing, but the phrase traditional publishing has gained significant ground over trade publishing over the last fifteen years.

But “traditional” publishing is likely to be interpreted differently from traditional publishing: the use of scare quotes implies “traditional” publishing means any publishing model other than traditional or trade publishing.

In discussing scare quotes, the Chicago Manual of Style also refers to the phrase “so-called”, as in so-called child protection often fails to protect. The use of so-called makes the scare quotes redundant, as the reader can clearly see the term indicates irony or doubt.

Conversely, the New Oxford Style Manual defines scare quotes as “quotation marks around an unusual or arguably inaccurate use”. This is interesting, as it implies the standard British meaning is less cynical than the US usage. Of course, the US usage may well have been influenced by James Bond Austin Powers and his arch-nemesis, Dr Evil.

However, Dr Evil is the face behind many popular internet memes, and I suspect the rise of these ironic images is one reason why readers are even more inclined to read scare quotes as indicating something less than the truth:

To summarise, only use scare quotes in your writing to indicate satire, sarcasm, irony, or doubt, and avoid using them merely to indicate a non-standard usage of a term.

So saying you’re a “traditional” publisher isn’t a clever way of telling readers you know trade publishing is the correct term (especially as your readers might not know that). Instead, saying you’re a “traditional” publisher is likely to leave your reader with the impression you are anything but.

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (,  subscribe to my monthly newsletter at CES Newsletter or follow me on Facebook (, Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (


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