Don’t be “scared.” They’re only scare quotes.

Are you ready for some “fun”?

Here, have some “free” chips.

These are “delicious”!

Have you ever noticed someone using quotation marks like this? Some writers seem to pepper their documents with quote marks, leaving their readers baffled at all the hidden meanings. There is a name for this type of punctuation. They are called scare quotes, and they are used to put the reader on alert that a different meaning is intended from what is commonly understood by a word. They are especially handy for indicating skepticism or irony.

When quote marks are used this way, it’s as if the writer has inserted so-called before the word. The reader stops and considers what else that word could mean. For example:

The “hero” who showed up at the crime scene turned out to be the person who set the fire.

When used needlessly, they can result in some raised eyebrows and possibly a snicker or two.

After a short chase, police officers arrested the “man.”

Quotation marks have several great uses — to indicate direct quotations, definitions of words, titles of certain works, dialogue — but emphasis is not one of them. That is the job of italics, underlining, and exclamation points (though, please, do not use all three).

Not sure whether you need quote marks around something? Ask yourself these brief questions:

  • Am I quoting someone?
  • Am I defining a specific word or phrase?
  • Is this dialogue?
  • Is this the title of an essay, article,  poem, TV episode, or chapter in a book?
  • Am I being ironic?

If you answered “no” to all of the above, you probably don’t need quote marks. Look to one of the other ways to emphasize a word, or try no emphasis. Often, the reader will understand your intonation without any “help” from you.

Like this blog? Try my new book Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro.

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