Teaching Shudder Quotes

Shudder quotes, or weird quotes as the the author Chuck Wendig refers to them in the tweet at the end of this post, can be used to indicate your are using a word with ironic intent.

Consider when you refer to the “stroke of genius” upper management foisted on everyone, and how all your colleagues are “just thrilled” to implement it.

You get the idea.20821371

Steven Pinker explicates the issue well in his book The Sense of Style:  The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Boldface, bullets, and underlines are mine):

 

Another bad habit of self-conscious writing is the prissy use of quotation marks sometimes called shudder quotes or scare quotes to distance the writer from a common idiom:

  • By combining forces, you could make the “whole more than the sum of its parts.”
  • But this is not the “take home message.”

[…]

The authors seem to be saying, “I couldn’t think of a more dignified way of putting this, but please don’t think I’m a flibbertigibbet who talks this way; I really am a serious scholar.”

[…]

Quotation marks have a number of ‘ legitimate uses, such as reproducing someone else’s words (She said, “Fiddlesticks!”), mentioning a word as a word rather than using it to convey its meaning (The New York Times uses “millenniums,” not “millennia”), and signaling that the writer does not accept the meaning of a word as it is being used by others in this context (They executed their sister to preserve the family’s “honor”). Squeamishness about one’s own choice of words is not among them.  … If you’re not comfortable using an expression without apologetic quotation marks, you probably shouldn’t be using it at all.

Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style : the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21stcentury. New York, New York: Viking.

Shudder quotes come up when I teach the use of quotation marks to my master’s preparatory class at the International Academy. I like to give my students examples that are pithy and relevant, so I share this tweet from the science fiction author Chuck Wendig. It captures the inadvertent perils misused shudder quotes entail with acute distinction:

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