Quotation marks and scare quotes

Posted on May 10, 2010


Quotation marks, or inverted commas, have many uses and the conventions surrounding these can be quite confusing, with the result that they are often misused. In UK copywriting the standard has been to place single inverted commas around phrases which are direct quotes, whereas in the US it is more usual to use double quotation marks. Perhaps because of the international nature of the Web, more and more UK copywriters are beginning to follow the example of US article writers and employ double quotation marks as the norm; newspapers also tend to use this method.

Quotation marks can be used in order to indicate words that will probably be unfamiliar to readers. In the UK, single inverted commas are likely to be used, while US content writers will probably go for the double option.

Writers risk sounding snobbish if they place quotation marks around words to express scepticism, and the term ‘scare quotes’ is used to refer to this practice. Scare quotes often convey a slightly sneering or sarcastic tone, such as in the description of a plate of chips as a ‘healthy’ meal. Frequently, quotation marks are mistakenly used for emphasis, with results such as ‘delicious’ food being advertised, implying that what is on offer is actually repulsive.

Scare quotes can be used in rather sinister ways by the media in order to cast doubt on someone or something in an oblique way without actually having to back this up with any facts. A wise writer should use quotation marks with care in order to avoid doing the same.


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