May 21, 2005

Secure and insecure scare quotes

A staff member at my university gave me a document to review, and the Post-It note on the front said ‘See "tagged" pages.’, referring to little colored tags sticking out to mark some of the pages. I asked her why she had put tagged in quotation marks on her note, and as I expected, she said she wasn't quite sure whether tag was a proper verb, didn't want to say anything that was wrong, and so on. The quote marks were a sign that this might not be the correct word to use. In other words, they were what scholars call scare quotes. And that's when it struck me that there were two shades of meaning for scare quotes, pragmatically distinguished.

When a full professor who works in some field like linguistics or philosophy puts a word or phrase in scare quotes, it's about the word or phrase: it's an indication that it may be the wrong one, an expression that ignorant and careless writers elsewhere have used but which really should be eschewed. Professors (well, professors of subjects like linguistics, logic, and philosophy, anyway) write from a standpoint of feeling linguistically fairly secure.

But when a staff member of lower perceived status uses the same device, the semantics is the same — the quote marks mean that this word or phrase may not be strictly correct — but pragmatically it's quite likely to indicate a very different situation, one in which the user feels insecure about whether the right word or phrase has been chosen.

One more reason why the people who try to say there isn't a distinction between semantic and pragmatic aspects of meaning (and there still are a few such people) just can't be right.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 21, 2005 09:54 PM