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Scare quotes

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Scare quotes are "quotes" put around a "proposition" because it is "unreliable". They are the written equivalent of air quotes.

In writing[edit]

Legitimate quotation marks are used when you wish to quote, or state without endorsing, the words of another:

According to Deepak Chopra, "Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level."

This is classic quantum woo and a legitimate use of quotation marks.

Scare quotes, by contrast, accurately represent a correct statement in such a way as to imply it is held only by the one or a few people, for example:

The "negative result" for homeopathy caused a massive furore.

when describing a study that produced highly credible, respected, widely reported, rigorous, and unambiguously negative results for homeopathy.

In general, scare quotes are among the cheapest of cheap rhetorical tactics, and used in excess, they tend to detract from a text's credibility by suggesting that the writer is unable to resort to more substantial maneuvers. Jonathan Chait described them as "the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you're insinuating".[1]

The term is also used to refer to the now-common misuse of quotation marks by people who think their purpose is for emphasis rather than, you know, quoting.

The gesture[edit]

Air quotes can also convey a sense of irony.[2] Air quotes first appeared in the 1920s and became popularized as a comedy device in the 1970s-1980s, particularly by Steve Martin and Chevy Chase.[2][3]


Beginning with the Trump presidency, it has been noticed that both Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, have been using scare/air quotes in reference to things that they themselves have said, as an apparent lame attempt at plausible deniability.[2] E.g., the plausible deniability was attempted on this quote:

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
—Donald Trump[2]

So, "President" Trump didn't really "mean" "wire tapped" because he put the words in "quotes", according to "Press Secretary" Spicer.[2] Trump had likely been libeling President Barack Obama by accusing him without evidence of a felony (unauthorized wiretapping) that it is most unlikely that he committed. It is also likely an impeachable offense for Trump, falling under the category "serious misconduct by the government official",[4] and the reference to the quotes by Spicer was a desperate attempt to backpedal.

Trump would later "clarify" that this was some kind of synecdoche:[5]

I say ‘wiretapping,’ those words were in quotes. That really covers — because wiretapping is pretty old-fashioned stuff — but that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that’s a very important thing.[6]