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  • Writer's pictureMarcia Edwina Herman-Giddens

My Lesson about Scare Quotes

I had never heard of scare quotes, and neither had several other people, an English major and other writers, I queried after my instruction in this matter and my awakening to the meaning and nuances of scare quotes. I must thank the project editor assigned to go over the Unloose My Heart manuscript. Her instructing me about this was a good lesson. The numbers of errors she caught and queries she posted were astounding, but this was the one I learned the most from.

My mistakenly using this particular scare quote came about in the section of the book about my third great-uncle and his reputation, which included his possibly being one of the models for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a man known for great cruelty to his enslaved people. Evidence emerged in the process of my researching all this that he fathered at least two children by one of the two enslaved women he forced to stay in his house. In an early version I had written houseslave. Then, in the middle of working on the book, the Chicago Manual of Style and other guides changed their guidelines on referring to slaves and black people to not using the word slave, instead using terms like enslaved man or enslaved woman and capitalizing Black. The reasons, which I strongly agree with, are obvious. I went back through the manuscript, making the appropriate changes.

When I came to the part about the enslaved mother of the two children I wrote “houseslave,” putting it in quotes not realizing that made a scare quote (also known as shudder quotes or sneer quotes). I wanted readers to know that this enslaved woman was forced to be in the house in part for sexual service. In trying to avoid using the word slave without some recognition that it dehumanizes the person, I didn’t realize what I was really doing was making the phrase into something to question, something to doubt. As elegantly put by Megan Garber in The Atlantic Monthly, in her 2016 article about scare quotes, “They signal… epistemic uncertainty.” (www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/12/the-scare-quote-2016-in-a-punctuation-mark/511319/) The term is fairly recent-- stemming from the mid-1950s.

In my discussion with project editor Ms. Finefrock, regarding my (ignorant) use of scare quotes, I explained that I put houseslave in quotes because I dislike euphemisms and feel that the word servant for an enslaved person is a euphemism and greatly distorts and covers up the reality of holding fellow human beings in bondage. I also wanted to signal that using slave for a person is no longer acceptable. So, now knowing about scare quotes, without further fuss I gave in to the term she suggested as acceptable- enslaved house servant. But, I still don’t like it.






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4 commentaires


Kathleen Williams
Kathleen Williams
12 juil. 2022

How I treasure your intrepid head-on encounter with life's little (and big) invitations to wrestle. I find myself inclining to surround a word or phrase in quotes, or even italics sometimes...instinctively. Now I really get to wonder about what's going on when I reach for the " key.

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Stephanie Wenzel
Stephanie Wenzel
21 juin 2022

I was a copyeditor for 30+ years and still don't quite understand what is meant by "scare quotes." Seems to be a fairly recent, narrow interpretation of the use of quote marks that has become predominant. I think your use of quotes is legitimate but is apparently no longer acceptable.

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Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens
Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens
22 juin 2022
En réponse à

At least you know about them which is more than anyone else I have talked to. I have read other sources on the subject and it seems clear to me that the nuances of scare quotes are unclear. They can have many interpretations so, it is probably writer beware. Very confusing. I agree with your last sentence.

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pampowellp3
21 juin 2022

Wow, I had no idea! I've been unwittingly using scare quotes (and using them often) for more than six decades, mostly to signal irony. My goodness.

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