Scared Yet?

The New Republic deconstructs the Wall Street Journal’s somewhat unorthodox devotion to “scare quotes”:

There are so many things that make The Wall Street Journal editorial page a source of personal fascination–the undying faith in voodoo economics, the staunch defense of executive privilege and disdain for independent counsels during Republican presidencies alternating with disdain for executive privilege and staunch defense of independent counsels during Democratic presidencies–but perhaps the most intriguing is the wildly promiscuous use of quotation marks. Over the years, it’s become an obsession of mine.

Like most of us, the Journal uses scare quotes to signify that a term is misleading. A 2007 editorial on climate change complained that “political and media activists attempt to stigmatize anyone who doesn’t pay homage to their ‘scientific consensus.’” As a matter of grammar, if not as a matter of fact, this is perfectly clear: The Journal believes no scientific consensus on climate change exists. Likewise, the Journal holds that tax cuts do not reduce revenue and will unfailingly scare-quote any term that implies otherwise–i.e., “The estimated ‘cost’ of this fix to the Treasury over 10 years would be some $632 billion.”

The Journal also uses the device to imply skepticism about phenomena it finds ideologically inconvenient. Thus terms like “the deficit” and “inequality, ” if they must appear at all on the Journal editorial page, are constantly set off in scare quotes. (“With all the political and media chatter about ‘inequality’ these days …”) Is there any way to read this other than as an implication that the government’s books have been balanced for years and all Americans enjoy exactly the same level of income?

[more] via Scared Yet?.

1 comment on this post.
  1. Stephen:

    I don’t read the WSJ, so I don’t know their political bent. But it seems to me that this usage could simply mark a word or phrase as a keyword, a shorthand reference to what someone else says or is known to say without actually quoting the other person. One does not necessarily have to interpolate a judgmental “so-called” into the text where so-called “scare quotes” are used.

    I know I sometimes find myself making an informal and very non-standard distinction between single and double quotation marks, where double quotation marks are for an exact quotation, and single quotation marks are for an approximate quotation, so to speak. Thus I may use single quotation marks as I described above, to highlight a word or phrase as a reference to something specific without having to spell it out in detail each time. This ‘quotation mark rule’ is, as I say, my own little quirk, but I find it useful.

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