Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

A hearty endorsement of shout quotes: scare quotes used for emphasis

My latest column in the Malaysia Star has been posted. The column is based on a radio essay that I wrote in June 2007 but never aired. In short, I’m endorsing the use of quotation marks for emphasis. John McWhorter more or less agrees in a column he published in the New York Sun in August 2007.

There’s a chain of restaurants in the United States called White Castle that sells greasy, yummy, little, oniony hamburgers in paper boxes.

On those boxes is printed the slogan Buy ’em by the “sack.” The double quote marks around “sack” are theirs, not mine. They are what is called “scare quotes.”

Scare quotes are usually found around very short phrases or around single words in order to call attention to those words in a negative way. They aren’t used to quote someone, they’re used to call into question whatever words are found within them. They instil doubt.

For example, in the movie Citizen Kane, scare quotes appear on the screen in a screaming newspaper headline, Candidate Kane Caught in Love Nest with “Singer.” Singer is in scare quotes as a way of suggesting that Kane’s sweetie, Susan Alexander, was little more than a floozy (a woman of loose morals) and not much of a singer.

White Castle, it turns out, has been using quotes around “sack” since at least the ’50s and probably longer. Because of the way the company uses them, I prefer to call them something other than scare quotes.

For one thing, they’re not really calling the word “sack” into question. There’s no scaring to be done, no fear to be instilled, no doubt to be sown. I suppose there are cheap laughs to be had by reading Buy ‘em by the “sack” as if the “sack” were only pretending to be a sack but is instead something else, like a tugboat or a banana. That’s the kind of intentional misunderstanding you have to make in order to think that those quotes around “sack” shouldn’t be there.

They belong there because the company is calling attention to the word. “Sack”, perhaps, wasn’t a word that everyone would use. Some might prefer “bag”, since “sack” historically has been much less used in some parts of the United States to refer to the folded paper container your purchases are packed into at the grocery store.

So if they’re not scare quotes around “sack”, what are they?

I suggest the term shout quotes. And I suggest that the use of quotations for emphasis be condoned for casual use by all language authorities: hired, self-appointed, or otherwise.

There’s a weblog called the “Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks” and on the photo-sharing website Flickr, there’s a fantastic picture pool called “quote abuse.” Both mock the use of quotes used to emphasise or draw attention to a word.

But as examples on both sites show, there are proper, natural, widely understood rules behind using shout quotes, even if they’re taught in no grammar or style book that I can find.

They’re appropriate when you have no other easy way to indicate emphasis. They’re appropriate when used, for example, in casual sign-making. They’re appropriate when bolding or underlining is not possible. They’re appropriate when used by people who don’t do typesetting for a living.

One picture shows a handwritten sign that says, “Sorry”, but there will be no pumpkin soup served today!

Well, for lame laughs, we could assume those are scare quotes and that the writer meant they weren’t really sorry. But that’s an uncharitable reading. The only way you could truthfully assume that the sorry was insincere would be to also assume that the sign-writer was incapable of even the simplest lie about being sorry. Clearly, with the shout quotes, the sign-writer meant that “sorry” was to be emphasised. Perhaps the pumpkin soup is extraordinary and they really were sorry it was not being served.

The intentional misreading of the shout quotes as scare quotes does grow rather thin. The sign that says We Love “Sushi” makes one commenter on Flickr wonder whether the sign-maker meant “cat” in place of “sushi.” See, if “sushi” is in quotes it must mean that the word is dubious, right? Maybe they’re selling cat-meat instead of fish?

No! They just wanted to emphasise the word “sushi.” Very simple. You have to go out of your way to get it wrong.

A truck door that says our drivers are “safe” drivers could make you wonder whether that company does indeed define “safe” differently from everyone else—besides leaving you wondering who they are trying to convince, when safe-driving behaviour alone should do the trick.

But of course, all they meant to do was to emphasise the word “safe”, in much the same way that in sign after sign, “do not” or “please” are put inside shout quotes that emphasise the strongest sentiments of their authors.

I endorse the use of quotation marks for emphasis, even in extreme cases. One example I collected is of a sign in a bar advertising half-off bottles of beer during happy hours. There are four shout quotes, one in each corner, decorating the page as much as they are enclosing the text, but all of them emphasising the discount.

That perfect example of using quotes for emphasis is something I can drink to.

author avatar
Grant Barrett