Who are you "quoting"?

Earlier this year, city officials in Boulder, Colorado discovered an unusual form of vandalism. A graffiti artist had altered the entrance sign to The Boulder County Justice Center utilizing a tool in typographic communication that has become a trend in our digital world: the scare quote.


Scare quote graffiti, Boulder, CO, July 2010. (Boulder Daily Camera)

Typing with our thumbs has added to our text-based communication chatspeak, emoticons and a plethora of new abbreviations. But its most interesting contribution to contemporary typography might be bringing the scare quote into the mainstream.

You may not be familiar with the label for the Digital Age’s favorite typographic marks, but odds are you’ve seen them used to add playful emphasis to words and phrases in all corners of your everyday life.


Liquor store signage, Berkeley, CA, October 2010.


Ford Escort, New York City, NY, November 2010 (Tim McCoy)

Online, they’re collected in the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotations, viewable at the “Quotation Mark” Abuse Flickr pool, appear on PassiveAggressiveNotes.com and can even be seen in product reviews.


Amazon.com product review, January 2007. (Amazon.com)

They’ve gotten so popular, professional copywriters and journalists are using them for mainstream audiences. Design-conscious Target is using them for deals that are “Unbelievable!” and just downright “Surprising!”; The Washington Post Style section has used them to describe Jon Stewart; and global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi is using them in their new Toyota Highlander ad campaign.

target-unbelievable.jpg target-surprising.jpg

Target in-store signage, September 2010.


The Washington Post, October 2010. (Washington Post)


Toyota Highlander wheatpasted ad, Berkeley, CA, December 2010.

Maybe you’ve even used scare quotes yourself. Perhaps to add sarcasm in chat:


Text messaging dramatization, webOS.

Or in their physical extension:

Scare quotes physically expressed on SNL, sometimes referred to as “finger” or “air” quotes. (Hulu)

Whether you love scare quotes or hate them so much you wrote an essay that they are the “enemy” on the Harvard University Press Blog, it’s undeniable: scare quotes are all around us, and seem to be gaining in popularity. What might be fueling the trend? Have we seen anything like scare quotes before? And if we choose to embrace them, how can we best use scare quotes?

Why do “idiots” keep using them?


Text messaging has allowed for an unprecedented level of communication to be text-based. According to The New York Times, American teenage girls send an average of “4,050 text messages a month, or eight each waking hour.” And in April, an NPR story that featured a girl who texted 300 times a day, found that “the number who say they text-message daily has shot up to 54 percent from 38 percent in just the past 18 months.”


Some teens text far more than they talk on cellphones. (See full infographic at Flowtown)

But unlike a basic word processor, cellphones use unformatted, plain text, text messaging. (Status updates on Facebook and Twitter are also exclusively plain text). That means lots of communication occurs without rich text options like bold and italics for emphasis. So when we need to tell our friends Justin Bieber is “so hot” in his latest video, scare quotes are not only useful, but might be the best typographic option.


The human voice is an incredible method of communication capable of a wide range of expression. Sadly, the more we communicate via text message and email, the more of that amazing ability we lose in conversation.

A SNL skit that might best be transcribed with scare quotes. (YouTube)

In walks scare quotes. Whether you’re quoting someone or not, seeing quotation marks makes the reader “think” someone is saying a particular word or phrase. And in a cold, digital world, vocal expressions like sarcasm might only be possible with a faux human voice, via scare quotes.


Students and professors frequently discuss complex and sensitive topics. Whether it’s class stratification, AIDS or gender roles, it would be easy to offend others by misusing particular words and phrases.

So, academia turns to scare quotes. The glyph allows them to express doubt and create distance from delicate subjects in collegiate essays.

A “kibbitzer” by Nieri Avanessian and John Swales attempted to determine the frequency of scare quotes in a body of collegiate writing. After hand-searching essays, they found that sociology papers used scare quotes most often, about four times for every 1,000 words written.


There are provocative blogs and intelligent comments, but read enough politically-slanted ones, and you might think we’re a nation of clueless “elites” or angry members of the “Party of No.” This “misinformation” is fueled by scare quotes.

Scare quotes let your gut do the talking. (Colbert Report)

Scare quotes can allow factual information to seem unfounded, and give ironic nicknames weight to the extreme base of a political party.

“FauxNews” is apparently “reporting” on “weapons of mass destruction.”
“ObamaCareLess” was not “born” in the United States.

The technique, which is where scare quotes get their name, has even spread to the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal (see also: TNR).

Have there been similar “mistakes”?

Sign Painted Slogans

Scare quotists seem to have taken a cue from the rich history of hand-painted signage and advertisements. The beautiful art of sign painting once gave a handwritten, human quality to the billboards that are a part of city life.


New York City, 2010. (MorgueFile)


New York City, 1905. (Library of Congress)

As sign painting technique for slogans, quotation marks effortlessly added a human voice to advertisements.


Iowa, 1940. (Library of Congress)

Today, there are some artists that focus on incredible, expressive lettering like Jessica Hische, Seb Lester, John Downer and Jim Parkinson. For today’s masses, it might be said that there is an easier way to refer to the human quality of hand-painted signage in text messages and emails: scare quotes.

A retrospective of Jim Parkinson’s amazing career. (Vimeo)

Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

In the late 1950s, an interesting and alternative usage of the apostrophe appeared around Liverpool, England. At greengrocers — fruit and vegetable stands — a reportedly mostly foreign-born contingent of workers made an apostrophe mistake over possessives and plurals commonplace.

Instead of putting “Apples” on sale, for example, the shopkeepers over-corrected their grammar and put signs up for “Apple's.” So there weren't “oranges,” but rather “orange's,” and the idea was further extended to change phrases like “please do not feed the birds” to “please do not feed the bird's.”

Believe it or not, the greengrocer's apostrophe continues to thrive today. There’s even an entire Flickr pool of collected images:

In England, the greengrocer’s apostrophe has now become so ubiquitous that BBC Radio 4 had a three-part comedy based on the “mistake”; The Daily Mail ran a greengrocer’s apostrophe “test” for its readers; and opinion pieces in both The Guardian and The Telegraph have called for an end to the apostrophe mark altogether.

The Original “Quotation Marks”

Those that originally drew what we call “quotation marks,” might be puzzled by the criticism surrounding the marks being used for emphasis. Afterall, that’s probably why the forms were drawn in the first place.

A diple is a historical punctuation mark that was used for emphasis. In the early 1500s, one style was drawn in the shape of what we call “quotation marks” today.


Printed work from 1521. “The diple (represented by double commas) has been placed in the margin to draw attention to the comments...it has not been used to indicate quotations from the King himself, not quotations from Scripture or patristic authorities.” (Pause and Effect, p. 221)

Punctuation historian Malcom Parkes writes that a diple “…like italic type, was employed for emphasis even where there was no quotation. In 1526, it was used by Nicolaus Hausmann of Zwickau in the margins of a letter to Stephen Roth, against lines that contained material he wishes to emphasize.” (Pause and Effect, p.59) According to Robert Bringhurst, the notion of quotation marks “did not come into routine typographic use until the late sixteenth century.” (Elements of Typographic Style, p.64)

Embracing “Scare Quotes”


Scare quote tattoo. (heyitsmejaya)


So, you've decided to forgo Robert Bringhurst’s wisdom that “many unprofessional writers overuse quotation marks,” and chosen to embrace scare quotes. Soon, you'll simultaneously travel a down a path of great expression, humor and potential embarrassment. To guide you on your journey, here are a few, fun ways you might consider using scare quotes:

  1. Sarcasm.
    • Walking into incoming traffic is a “great” idea.
  2. Question the validity of a word or phrase.
    • She's my “wife,” but we're seeing other people.
  3. Academic curiosity.
    • What is “racism”?
  4. Importance.
    • Please “do not” pick your nose.

Be cautious: The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes that scare quotes can be used for emphasis, but since using scare quotes is a largely informal practice, different sources consider different kinds of usage to be correct. One lexicographer, for example, received dozens of hateful comments for proposing a form of scare quotes for emphasis should be recognized.

Alternate Glyphs

Since there is visual ambiguity between quotation marks and scare quotes typographically, other glyphs are sometimes used instead of scare quotes. Among the more popular options:

  1. Asterisk: surrounds a word or phrase for emphasis.
    • I'm *so* over him.
  2. Winky: follows a lighthearted sentence, can be interpreted as flirtatious.
    • You must be tired, 'cause you've been running through my mind all day. ;)
  3. Tilde: follows a sentence with sarcasm.
    • Another great season for the Royals~

There are also those that have tried to invent their own marks. Options include percentage signs, percontation point, sarcasm font and SarcMarc.

SarcMark. (SarcMark)

These alternates can be fun, and might make for a good classroom exercise, but lack the effectiveness of scare quotes. Afterall, the power of scare quotes is largely ambiguity, so to reduce that fuzziness feels like the wrong typographic choice.


Given their heavy usage online, there has been some tongue in cheek interest in establishing a HTML tag for scare quotes. Quotation-marks.com suggests using the rarely implemented <q> tag to create distinction between scare quotes and regular ones. Some utilize the fictitious <sarcasm> tag for sarcasm in forums and comments. The W3C does not approve “<sarcasm>.”


Standardistas like their sarcasm without tags. (ImageShack, Reddit)

“Unnecessary” Quotations

Quotation marks are used beyond their standard purposes all around us. Known as “scare quotes,” they are fueled by the need for emphasis in plain text, sarcasm, sensitivity and talking from the gut. They can be fun, and we’ve seen similar “mistakes” before, but if you hop on the typographic trend of the Digital Age, beware: they’re not accepted by everyone.


Nick Myers
I prefer to use the *asterisk* for emphasis. Quotes have a very negative tone in email so I prefer to avoid them. Nice article and I particularly love Chris Farley's SNL skit!
Stefan Klocek
As somewhat of a "typophile" do you have an opinion whether reappropriating double-quote glyphs is preferrable to using something like an asterix or inventing an altogether new glyph for scare quotes?
Thanks Nick! There are definitely a lot of "sources" out there that say scare quotes should only be used for irony, but there's no denying they are used widely and "professionally" with positivity in mind. Target, for example, probably intended for "Surprising!" to mean SURPRISING! and not "actually lame!"
Stefan - a great question. Scare quotes are often informal and fun, so I would hesitate about giving any personal opinions about what a broader audience "should" or "shouldn't" do.
Doug LeMoine
A couple of thoughts that I had while reading: (1) Punctuation marks are a set of tools for shaping the voice of the text and, importantly, for facilitating cognition, and (2) quotation marks are particularly powerful tools. Unlike other marks, quotations can act on the meaning of the text; they can expand (or even invert) it. I think that this is why alternative usage of quotation marks (with scare quotes, for example) is fraught with grammatical controversy. When the meaning of text can be inverted with quotation marks, cognition suddenly becomes a little more complicated. Multiple potential meanings of the same text means that each reader has to do a little more cognitive work to determine the true meaning, and it's possible that two different readers will take two totally different meanings away from the text. Anyway, great stuff.
Jonathan Korman
I enjoyed the examples, but I take exception to referring to the use of quotation marks for emphasis as "scare quotes." If I write ... jazz "music" is just noise ... then I have done proper scare quotes, indicating my skepticism about the appropriateness of the word "music." This powerful and appropriate use of the punctuation (or gesture, if I make the scare quotes with my hands during speech) communicates very compactly a useful and complex concept --- that I have used a word in reference to other people's usage, but doubt that the appropriateness of the word. We call that *scare* quotes because I want to scare you with a warning to distrust the word "music." They qualify as *quotes* because I have used the word "music" only because other people have used it; I have disowned the word myself, putting it in a protective container lest you attribute to me the concession that jazz qualifies as music. On the other hand, if I write ... jazz music is "just" noise ... it becomes difficult to understand my meaning. Presumably I meant to emphasize the word "just" but I have not made an allusion to someone using the word, rightly or wrongly. These quotation marks neither scare nor quote. Needless to say, this abomination that all sensible people abjure as corrosive to the proper meaning of the quotation mark has no place in a just society. As Nick says, if you need emphasis, we have asterisks for *that*.
D. B. Gaston
Lots of old movie posters (I'm thinking particularly of posters from the 1960s and 70s) would put the title of the movie in quotes. Anyone know when this practice fell out of favor? A couple of examples: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_ec_bXQZWE2E/ScFbNCk9xBI/AAAAAAAAC7Q/ZVbNRPWZSIg/s400/771968773_44dc6a38c1_o.jpg http://www.movieposter.com/posters/archive/main/21/A70-10700
Doug - really interesting insight. As we're so reliant yet so limited in plain text communication these kinds of uses of punctuation seem all the more powerful. And as a graphic/visual designer, bending and shaping meaning to communicate clearly is a huge part of my job (if not my job, entirely). I will say, beyond the quotation mark, the question mark can be quite powerful in altering meaning. In 2006, Jon Stewart suggested that cable news channels created false news stories by adding a question mark at the end of statements. For example, "Is Barack Obama is the greatest president ever?" suggests Obama just might be the best. See: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-september-13-2006/the-question-mark
Jonathan - It's hard not to love this sentence, "Needless to say, this abomination that all sensible people abjure as corrosive to the proper meaning of the quotation mark has no place in a just society." And for your comment as a whole, you're right: there is a lot of ambiguity around what scare quotes really are since they have been defined to be one thing and are often used in another form. Two things to note: (1) Just like quotation marks, the asterisk is often used in sarcasm as well as emphasis. (2) In this article, I linked to a lexicographer, Grant Barrett, who suggested the term "shout quotes" for instances in which quotation marks are intended for emphasis and may not exactly be "scare quotes." See: http://www.doubletongued.org/index.php/grantbarrett/comments/a_hearty_endorsement_of_shout_quotes_scare_quotes_used_for_emphasis/
Great article, very insightful, but I'm curious about why you didn't put scare quotes around your name since it's clearly made up.
D.B. - Great finds. Who knows, we can only hope this playful practice might soon return if scare quotes continue to get more and more popular. Perhaps in next year's Zombie movies. There's also something that the quotes add typographically to the handmade style of the posters; re-enforcing the genre. Perhaps when handmade posters fell out of fashion, so did using quotation marks around the movie titles. Just a guess. I'd be curious to know more if anyone has more definitive answers.
Crozbone - hahah. Every "great" writer *needs* a pseudonym. ;)
An email I got from Target: --- Dear Golden Krishna, I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the signage at our Target stores. We're always looking for ways to improve the shopping experience for you. Your comments really help us make Target even better and I've shared them with the Store Operations team. This way, they can see what's working out just right for you. Thanks for letting us know about what you enjoyed at Target. Sincerely, ______________ ---
I don't think the Target examples count. Presumably they are there because they are quoting what people have said about the garments. Or are they included as unintended humor?
@Jenea But who are they quoting?
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