Quotation marks around dialogue and quotations are pretty straightforward. It’s increasingly common, though, to see marks around individual words or phrases. These quotations muddy the waters of sentences and confuse the minds of readers, and can be downright disturbing.
- Please come and “try” our “fresh” sandwiches!
- I’d like to see him “channel” his inner Aquaman.
- We are open “24 hours a day.”
Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to signal its use in a nonstandard way or to convey irony, skepticism, or disagreement. They’re also known as sneer quotes, which kind of says it all. Anyone accustomed to reading normal prose would (and probably should) pause at the door of a business that uses quotation marks around any of its products, especially “food.” Scare quotes also serve the purpose of sarcasm: The four-hour lecture on punctuation was “interesting.”
The Ancient Greeks used a version of scare quotes. And although their usage disappeared for a long time, they’ve had a resurgence starting in the 1990s.