Beware! – “Scare Quotes”

Caution! "Electric fence" © Lodewijk Muns 2019
Caution! “Electric Fence”

Quotation is a dubious device. Quoting is referring to something by its counterfeit. It borders on forgery and stealing. Safeguards have to be in place: quote marks which show that what’s between them belongs elsewhere. Take at quote, hand back at unquote.

Signs of Signs

What do we do when we quote? The words we use no longer (simply) refer to what they ordinarily refer to; rather, they refer to themselves. As Gottlob Frege pointed out in the late nineteenth century, the signs we use are transformed into signs of signs, or metasigns.

That elementary logical distinction is almost blatantly obvious. A crook is a person who engages in fraudulent practices; the word ‘crook’ is a word. But the formula ‘signs of signs’ obscures the fact that what we’re putting between quotes may be very different things: something somebody said on some occasion (Peter said: ‘The president is a crook’); words as elements of grammar (‘The president is a crook’ is a sentence); words as graphic signs (‘Crook’ has five letters), and so on.

Quoting Peter as saying ‘The president is a crook’, I created a metasign of Peter’s remark. The quoted expression is not merely a transcription of the sounds Peter made (ðə ˈprɛzəˌdɛnt ɪz ə krʊk): along with those words, I have communicated the sense of what he said. It is a meaningful statement which (in a certain context) may be either true or false. Besides being ‘mentioned’ (by means of metasigns), Peter’s words are also ‘used’ (as signs).

The distinction between sign and metasign, between words ‘used’ and words ‘mentioned’, is fundamental (as logicians following Frege have emphasized), but at the same time nonexclusive and gradual. The polar opposites of use and mention are connected by a gradient of greyish use-mention.

An expression is not neutralized by being quotemarked. According to ancient beliefs in word magic, words may conjure their objects. In modern consciousness, they at least conjure objects in the mind. Both God and humans do not like their names to be used ‘in vain’. Words can hurt. Painful issues are approached by circumlocutions and abbreviations (‘the x-word’). We prefer not to quote literally a particularly offensive remark; even the boldest quotation marks will not make it harmless.

Quoting something, we pass it on and increase its distribution. Too easily in time-pressured journalism checked facts are substituted with alleged facts, or slow facts with fast ‘facts’.

Scary Semantics

Besides the relatively straightforward device of reported speech (Peter said: …), there are those cases where an expression is attributed more vaguely to some speech community or type of discourse: a so-called…, what some people call …  This is what we do in scare quoting: using an expression, while at the same time highlighting (‘mentioning’) it as an alien element. Its proper understanding depends on the identification of its source: for the terms ‘use’ and ‘mention’, the discourse of analytical philosophers; when I scarequoted ‘facts’ (in fast ‘facts’), a hypothetical community of pressured journalists.

Though scare quoting has a bad reputation, it is something we continually do, implicitly or explicitly, and can’t avoid doing. We have to adapt the lexicon to our needs, changing the sense of words and phrases, borrowing from different kinds of discourse, and introducing novel expressions. In order to make language work, we change it.

Here we’re entering a notorious linguistic swamp.

All swamps provide a large variety of ecosystem services that are of great value ecologically and economically.
T.M. Burton, Encyclopedia of Inland Waters, 2009

Implicitly, an expression between quote marks receives a degree of emphasis. And often it is hard to tell whether emphasis is all they signify.

Emphasis may be the only function of so-called greengrocer’s quotes, as in the classical ‘fresh’ vegetables. Mocked by grammarians as unwitting sarcasm, it might still be read more generously as a variety of mention: now that’s what I call ‘fresh’!

In the warning sign pictured above, on the other hand, emphasis seems to be all that is intended. The quotes might be replaced with manicules (CAUTION! ☞ELECTRIC FENCE☜).

”Should you need a fresh towel – please leave used towel in your bedroom sink.”

This notice in a London hotel room may owe its quotes to the author’s assumption that a piece of cardboard cannot speak, and that in order to convince the guest, it should have the appearance of being made by someone. In which case the quotes would be equivalent to a speech balloon that points to no visible character. The same applies to this overhead notice in the Thalys train between Amsterdam and Paris:

“Chers voyageurs, bienvenue à bord. Pour le confort de tous, nous vous invitons à utiliser votre téléphone sur les plate-formes situées à l’entrée de chaque voiture.”

There are passionate collectors of this kind of curiosa.

POTUS Quotes

More harmful is the introduction of ambiguous scare quoting in statements of fact. Had I rendered Peter’s statement as “The president is a ‘crook'”, it would have been unclear whether Peter called the president a crook, and what he meant by that. Since precisely this kind of erratic ambiguity has achieved its apotheosis in the tweets of Donald Trump, I propose to call this type of abuse ‘presidential quotes’, or better, ‘POTUS quotes’.

According to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, his erratic quotes ‘reveal the president’s insecurity about his profound illiteracy’. He seems to mark those words that he suspects (often mistakenly) to be slang (‘leaker’, ‘rigged’, ‘stupid’). But as we have seen in March 2017, they may be opportunistically invoked to excuse the tweeter from any hysterical accusation he has made, by appealing to a vague kind of non-literalness.

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
(@realDonaldTrump, 4 March 2017)

Quotation marks do not neutralize meaning. They do have an uncanny power of helping crooks to get away with anything.


See also: Musical Quotation and the ‘Use-Mention’ Distinction