Scare Quotes, So-called, and Italics

Sometimes we use terms in unusual ways and we want to alert the reader to that fact. Perhaps we want to draw attention to the irony of using a certain word, or the fact that the term is not normally applied this way. By putting quotation marks around the term, it draws the reader’s attention to the unusual usage.


The “caregiver” neglected his patient whenever possible.

The bulldog wore a collar that had a watch as a buckle. Now he was a “watchdog.”


The standard way of using the quotation marks for these so-called scare quotes is with double (rather than single) quotation marks. The British system uses singles, but in my posts here, I will always be using the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines, so doubles it is. (The British would reverse the rules for single and double quotation marks).

The exception to using double quotation marks for scare quotes is when that term is already inside doubles as in dialogue. In that case you would put singles inside the doubles.


When I saw the bulldog walking, I said to his owner, “Oh look at that cute collar. Your pet is a real ‘watchdog’ now.”

If I wanted to refer to the bulldog I mentioned above, I could say that I meant the so-called watchdog. In this case, where the term “so-called” precedes the word I wanted to emphasize, I would not put quotation marks around either word.

It would be:

the so-called watchdog

the so-called caregiver

*Most North American writers use the American style guide and so scare quotes would never be used with single quotation marks (unless they were already inside doubles, as shown above).  Check your manuscripts and see if you’ve used singles instead of doubles.

You may be wondering if you could just put the scare quotes in italics instead. Italics would be used in the case of a foreign word or phrase used in English writing, unless it is a proper noun (such as the name of a city or person).

Italics would also be used to highlight key terms the first time they are used in a piece of writing.


We will be studying biodiversity in these workshops.

Have fun sorting these out. You’ll get used to it after a while.





8 thoughts on “Scare Quotes, So-called, and Italics

  1. I use the double lines but have tried the single too. I had no idea of the difference between the British and North American uses. Our English language is complicated and beautiful too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an American, why not use the American traditional writing rules? Use doubles for everything except if you put another quotation inside of a quotation and then you use singles for that.


    • That’s good, Diana. I see it misused in books I read (not in yours) and then I think maybe it’s time for a post about it, but it’s great that not everything is new to all of us, right? It gives us hope and confidence.

      Liked by 1 person

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