Monday, December 10, 2018

Scare Quotes Everywhere!

This post first ran on 1/31/2009 and we still don't like being "scared" this way! ~ Dani

Quote marks are probably the most overused form of punctuation. Quote is short for quotation, so essentially, quote marks should be used only to set off a quotation—the verbatim text of something that was said or published. If you’re writing a novel and using quote marks for anything but dialogue—take them out!

Writers everywhere like to use quote marks around words they consider special for some reason or around words that are not being used in a traditional way. Old school editors call these scare quotes, a way of alerting the reader that the word may not mean what you think it does. Ninety percent of the time, the marks are completely unnecessary. If you’re writing logical sentences—even using euphemisms—readers know what you mean. Here’s a few examples of unneeded quote marks.
  • “Quote” is short for “quotation.” (Did anyone misread the sentence when I wrote it earlier without the punctuation?)
  • After a few minutes in the club, John decided to wander back and watch the “dancers.” (Yes, we all know that dancers is a polite way of saying strippers. Does your character think of them of dancers or strippers? Use one or the other without quote marks, because it tells us something about your character.)
Many editors will argue that in my first example quote marks are necessary to set off the words used as words. In some cases, this may be true. (Oh the discussions I’ve had about words as words!) The real test is readability. If the sentence reads fine without the punctuation, don’t use it. Less is better. If you have to set off a word used as a word for readability, please use italics, which are much less intrusive and preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style.

For a look at some extreme examples of excessive quote mark usage, check this site.
The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and editor and is the author of 23 novels, including the Detective Jackson mysteries series. Find her at: and
Write First, "Clean" Later ;)


  1. Thank you, LJ, for a post that made me think. I do see a lot of quote marks where they shouldn't be. Some of its overuse, I think, may be because of blogs. (Quick, make that connection!) When I leave a comment on a blog and use a word that I ordinarily would have italicized, I put it in quotation marks -- because I don't know how to do the html tags. Even the Blood Red Pencil comment box here says I can use html tags, such as the one for italics, but does that mean put tag before the word, no space, followed by the tag no space?

    Okay, one of the editors here who are smarter than me (which is everyone), tell me how to use the html tags so that I'm not mis-using the quotation marks.


  2. I've been wanting to straighten out that issue, and your take on it makes a lot of sense.

    Thanks for the advice.

  3. I agree with you about the italics replacement with at least one consideration. In a novel, if the author is using a lot of italics for inner dialogue, additional italics applications can become confusing. They're also often used for titles, so that adds another level of potential miscommunication. It's tough to know what to do, since every house and editor has a personal standard. Even the BRP is all over the place in this regard.

    Change - never a dull moment!


  4. I want to print out this entry and pass it around to everyone in my city. I'm always seeing signs ith messages like, "Thank you to our "loyal" customers" and wondering if it's supposed to be sarcasm.

  5. I agree. Using unnecessary quotes can slow down the pace of a sentence and become irritating.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. I'm surprised at how often I see the overuse of quote marks in business writing and educational materials. Deleting them is one of the most consistent editing marks I make.

  7. Except for those relentless apostrophe's. ARGGGGGH.

    Happy Sunday,


  8. Thank you for a brief explanation. Every time I try to write one, my snark gets in the way.


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