Tip: No More Scare Quotes

Not sure if you should put quote marks around something? Is it dialogue or a direct quote? If not, forget the quote marks. They are most overused form of punctuation. Quote is short for quotation, so quote marks should be used only to set off a quotation in nonfiction. If you’re writing a novel and using quote marks for anything but dialogue—take them out.
Writers like to use quote marks around words they consider special. Old school editors call them scare quotes, a way of alerting readers the word isn’t being used in a traditional way. Readers are smart. If you’re writing logical sentences, readers know what you mean. Here’s a few examples of unneeded scare quotes.

  • “Quote” is short for “quotation.” (Did anyone misread the sentence when I wrote it earlier without the punctuation? )
  • After a few minutes in the club, John decided to wander back and watch the “dancers.” (Yes, dancers is a polite way of saying strippers. Does your character think of them of dancers or strippers? Use one or the other without quote marks, because it tells us something about your character.)

The true test is readability. If the sentence reads fine without the punctuation, don’t use it. Less is better. If you have to set off the word used as a word for readability, use italics, which are so much less intrusive and Chicago Manual of Style says are preferable. For a look at some extremes of excessive quote mark usage, check this site: The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks

Do  you have strong opinions about quote marks? If so, leave a comment.

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4 Comments
  1. Totally agree on this (and am probably guilty of it now that I think about it – blast, another editing run-through!). I have also heard that for manuscript submission, many editors/agents prefer you to use underline instead of italics, even though italics are what will be used in a published work.

  2. Edward, that is why it is important that you check the editors/agents/publishers guidelines. If you can’t find the information, ask them.

    The underline vs italics is a preference, not a hard and fast rule. I prefer the italics and get upset when I see the underline. Again, it is a preference.

  3. Yay! Another Chicago Manual of Style fan…

  4. I think other web site proprietors should take this web site as an model, very clean and fantastic user friendly style and design, as well as the content. You are an expert in this topic!

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