‘Scary quotes’

You’ve probably heard of scare quotes, well here’s scary quotes.

This is an image from the BBC news website today. Note the scary phrases in quotation marks, aka inverted commas:

Scary quotes commonly appear in headlines and subheadings. Some indicate reported speech or text, a common function of quotation marks; others paraphrase. They are a subset of claim quotes, an unofficial journalistic term for what Martyn Cornell describes as

a shorthand way of saying “someone is making this claim and we neither give it authority nor dismiss it, we’re just reporting it”. Frequently what is inside these sorts of claim quotes is a paraphrase of what was actually said, to make it fit inside the headline space

Bombers, memory holes, vomiting and screaming: the defining feature of scary quotes is that their contents are scary. Visit BBC news any day, at any hour, and you might take fright.

Edit: On a visit an hour later, I saw ‘rape’, ‘recession’, and ‘rhino gang’ in scary quotes – and that’s just the Rs, on the front page.


Previously in novel punctuation: apostrophantoms.

12 Responses to ‘Scary quotes’

  1. schrisomalis says:

    Thanks for this – very interesting! I hadn’t heard the term ‘claim quotes’ before but it makes sense, although I still find it perplexing when the BBC (and other UK outlets) do this. I wrote about this in an essay a couple of years ago (http://glossographia.wordpress.com/2009/09/26/a-typology-of-quotation-marks/) where I called them ‘distancing’ quotation marks.

    Steve Chrisomalis

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks, Steve. ‘Distancing quotes’ is a good term for them, though not as catchy as ‘claim quotes’. Geoffrey Pullum suggested ‘mendacity quotes’ but I don’t think that’s a good fit. I enjoyed your typology post – and Grant Barrett’s shout-out to ‘shout quotes’.

    I surveyed these wayward uses here, though I was a bit unfair in some of my language. Truth is, I love the strange ambiguities evoked by the emphatic quotes of Please enjoy our “Safe” and “Comfortable” flight; and “Massage” by Salvador.

  3. Tom says:

    ‘Hedge quotes’? On the grounds that they save the writer the infernal bother of deciding whether the description is accurate?

    And I presume you’ve seen The ‘Blog’ of ‘Unnecessary’ Quotation Marks… http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/

  4. thepoormouth says:

    They seem to be quite common, although in the case of the Mail, I would describe them as “Run for the hills. we’re all doomed” quotes, given that paper’s frequent scare stories.In fact I have invented a word to describe such stories” – Mailenariannism!

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Shoe ‘bomber’… underwear ‘bomber’ (Fruit of the Doom?).

    Can the bra, burka, and beret ‘bomber(s)’ be that far off, in light of recent findings that the jihadists now may soon have the capability of embedding any garment fabric w/ nearly undetectable high-explosive agents? Mercy!

    The latest sardonic twist in the greater sophistication of wanton mid-air acts of terror is that ‘the enemy’s’ next deceptive ploy could be the surgical implantation of lethal IEDs. (Suicide ‘bomber’, virtually locked and loaded for potential mayhem.)

    I can see the headline now: “Spleen ‘bomber’ Strikes!”— Sub-header: “747 passenger airliner explodes over Turkmenistan, bound for London. No survivors.” (Clearly, no laughing matter.)

    Sadly, we are living in an ever increasingly interconnected, unstable, politically volatile, more perilous world, where air-travel has become, for many, an almost necessary evil—an exercise in Russian roulette, where the possibility of falling victim to international terror in the skies is ever-present.

    Some glass-half-full-optimists argue that the odds of being victimized by a mid-air ‘bomber’ are about as likely as the extreme one of being struck down, and killed by lightening, or dying in a freeway mishap.

    But tell that one to the still mourning family and friends of those unfortunate, innocent souls who lost their lives in the three passenger jets that perished on that fateful, horrific day on 9/11.

  6. Stan says:

    Tom: ‘Hedge quotes’ works too. Is the phrase in circulation, or did you coin it just there? (Yes, I’ve ‘seen’ that ‘blog’.)

    Jams: Great word! I avoid the Mail so I’m not very familiar with its style of headline quotes. Maybe I’ll visit later just to compare it with the BBC’s.

    Alex: Let’s hope it never comes to spleen bombing.

  7. Tom says:

    Yep, that one’s fresh off the top of my head. A Google check shows the phrase is hardly original, but other people seem to be using it to mean quotes about hedges.

  8. […] words; and Stan Carey looked at different ways of apologizing, and on his own blog, scared up some scary quotes and explored a skeptical Irish expression. At Language Log, Mark Liberman verbed some words and […]

  9. dan bloom says:

    Stan, with Mark Thompson CEO of BBC going over the lead the NYT in November, see news, does this mean the front page of the NYT will start to copy the BBC website headline style of piling on the quote unquote scare quotes? Could happen.

  10. Stan says:

    I don’t know, Dan. I wouldn’t expect a marked change in the NYT’s punctuation practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: