Scare Quotes: How “Scary” Are They?

Scare quotes indicate that a word or a phrase is being used in some nonstandard way: a meaning different from its usual one. Use them to say “This word has been repurposed.” Scare quotes can also imply irony, skepticism, or disdain. What you are saying then is “I use this word ironically” or “This is not the word I would choose to use.”

  • This button allows you to “poke” the user.
  • Oh, was she “busy” again?
  • He has posted another “apology,” just as unapologetic as the first one.

As we know, quotation marks generally enclose direct speech or a quotation. Scare quotes are “scary” because they carry hidden meaning, asking the reader to read between the lines to understand why they are being used. The reader must decide whether you are simply quoting someone or being ironic. Use scare quotes carefully and thoughtfully, and only when you are sure they won’t cause confusion.


In speech, scare quotes are indicated by air quotes, the action of wiggling your fingers in the air to show quotation marks. Overuse can be both irritating and confusing.

To indicate irony

Use scare quotes to tell the reader you are using a term ironically. (Irony is when you mean something other than the actual meaning of a word, especially when you mean its opposite.)

  • These woods are being sold to a property developer for “improvement.”
    By using scare quotes, you imply that what will result from this sale is the opposite of improvement.
  • Oh no! Did you “bake” again?
    To imply that what the person did isn’t baking but something else (e.g., create a mess in the kitchen).
  • You know what happens when he tries to “help.”
  • They’ve offered “compensation,” which we have refused.
  • The only thing I learned from that “guru” is that I’m a gullible fool.
  • Your “clarification” was unclear.

Don’t enclose a word in scare quotes simply to emphasize it. Use italics instead. Scare quotes imply irony or an unusual meaning. Italics show emphasis.

  • Irony: He writes about how AI can “improve” content.
  • Emphasis: I asked you to improve it, not ruin it.

Don’t use scare quotes unless you mean to be ironic.

  • Ironic: She gave me another “gift” yesterday.
    If you mean that the gift was not a gift but something else, the scare quotes are fine. But if you simply mean she gave you a gift that was a gift, no irony is intended, and you shouldn’t be using scare quotes.
    Not ironic: She gave me another gift yesterday.

Unless you use them carefully, scare quotes can make you sound ironic or disdainful when you don’t mean to be.

  • Ironic: This is what “kind” people do.
    Scare quotes imply irony, which means you want to say that the people are not kind.
    Not ironic: This is what kind people do.
    Without scare quotes, the sentence just means what it says.

To signify nonstandard use

You can also use scare quotes to indicate that a term is being used in some nonstandard way, not necessarily ironic.

  • Bacteria can “walk” across the surface of your teeth.
    Bacteria can’t actually walk (they don’t have feet). Scare quotes indicate the nonstandard use of this term.
  • The app even has a button that lets you “ring” a bell.
  • The machine uses its “fingers” to manipulate objects.
  • All he ate was a “cookie.”
    Scare quotes imply that “cookie” is slang or code for something else.

Don’t overuse scare quotes. A word doesn’t need to be enclosed in quotes if it is a common expression, even if it is informal usage or slang. Similarly, don’t enclose an idiom or a well-recognized figure of speech in scare quotes.

  • Incorrect: She was “cancelled” for her article against “cancel culture.”
    Correct: She was cancelled for her article against cancel culture.
  • Incorrect: “Millennials” think they are unhappier than they are, just like “yuppies” thought they were happier than they were.
    Correct: Millennials think they are unhappier than they are, just like yuppies thought they were happier than they were.
  • Incorrect: We’ll never see “eye to eye” on this.
    Correct: We’ll never see eye to eye on this.
  • Incorrect: The last decade saw her move from playing “damsel in distress” to “comic supervillain.”
    Correct: The last decade saw her move from playing damsel in distress to comic supervillain.

Don’t use scare quotes around an informal or slang expression if it can be found in a standard dictionary (such as Merriam-Webster or Oxford).

With so-called

Don’t use so-called and scare quotes together. The adjective so-called already implies that a word is being used incorrectly or ironically. When used with so-called, scare quotes are redundant.

  • Incorrect: Her so-called “lawyer” wants her to plead out.
    Correct: Her so-called lawyer wants her to plead out.
  • Incorrect: This was written by a so-called “friend.”
    Correct:This was written by a so-called friend.

So-called can also simply refer to a commonly used name. Again, don’t use scare quotes when you use it this way.

  • Incorrect: The so-called “bearcat” is neither a bear nor a cat.
    Correct: The so-called bearcat is neither a bear nor a cat.

In formal usage

Avoid using scare quotes in formal usage, such as academic and business writing, where it is best to be direct. Scare quotes carry subtext, which can easily be lost or misinterpreted. They can also make you sound ironic and disdainful when you don’t mean to be.

  • Poor: The annual report shows our “profits” in the last year.
    Implies you are using the word ironically.
    Better: The annual report shows our profits in the last year.
  • Poor: We interviewed each “volunteer” four times during the course of this study.
    Better: We interviewed each volunteer four times during the course of this study.

Irony and disdain generally don’t have a place in formal writing, which requires a more objective tone. The only time it is acceptable to use scare quotes in formal texts is when you want to show that a word is being used in some nonstandard way.

  • This app allows you to “walk around” any place on Earth.
  • Participants were asked if they would consider “stealing” someone else’s points with a single click.

Even here, you must be careful that it is clear you are indicating nonstandard use rather than irony. Clarify meaning if needed to avoid confusion.

  • This app allows you to “walk around” any place on Earth: you can enter and exit buildings, look around, and even take photographs and selfies.

To simply introduce a term, italicize it at first use instead of using quotation marks, to avoid any confusion about whether it is being used ironically.

  • Each dorm houses ten children and a mother, a woman who has volunteered to care for them during their stay.

One final danger with using scare quotes in formal texts is that the reader might be confused about whether the quotes enclose someone else’s words or indicate irony. In formal texts, allow the reader to correctly assume that you are quoting someone verbatim rather than being ironic.

  • One participant reported experiencing “a burning sensation” in her fingers.
    The quotation marks enclose the participant’s exact words instead of being used as scare quotes.

Examples from published content

The following sentences show the use of scare quotes to indicate irony. As one would expect, such usage is seen more often in opinion pieces than in reportage.

  • Recognizing his friends appreciated calming videos, one staff member created an “explainer” on the midterm elections for Snapchat that used video of a horse being groomed, pizza being made and flowers growing while an offscreen voice discusses politics.
    — “Betting on social media as a news destination for the young,” AP News (March 3, 2023)
  • Patricia Field’s divisive costumes subvert ideas about how women “should” look.
    — “The iconic outfits that cause outrage,” BBC Culture (Feb. 18, 2023)

These examples show how scare quotes signify nonstandard use of a word and that this is acceptable in formal writing.

  • Researchers who study aphantasia, or the inability to visualize something in your “mind’s eye,” are starting to get a sense of how to accurately measure the condition and what it may mean for those who have it.
    — “Does not being able to picture something in your mind affect your creativity?” Scientific American (Feb. 27, 2023)
  • Rapid “westernization” of the microbiota has been observed in US immigrants.
    — Wastyk et al., “Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status,” Cell, Vol. 184, Issue 16 (Aug. 5, 2021)
  • It’s a good example of fiction as “the mind’s flight simulator.”
    — “Can a book make you vegan?” BBC Culture (Apr. 27, 2020)
  • Representational similarity matrices . . . describe the “geometry” of neural representations.
    — Bierbrauer et al., “The memory trace of a stressful episode,” Current Biology, Vol. 31, Issue 23 (Dec. 6, 2021)

Quick Quiz

Which sentence has scare quotes?
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Which of these conveys irony?
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Which shows that a word is being used in a nonstandard way?
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Which is/are correct?
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