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'Scare quotes' having a 'field day' in the 'media'

In the long run-up to the American presidential election this coming November, an epidemic of so-called “scare quotes” is turning political punditry and commentary into what might be called “a punctuation epidemic.” Political commentaries written from both a leftwing or a rightwing point of view use “scare quotes” to blame Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in different ways.

I realize that not all readers in Taiwan, even native English speakers, know what a scare quote is. The dictionary defines them as quotation marks placed around words or phrases to put a distance between the writer and the word, as if he or she is saying: “I don't really use that word.” Examples are when conservatives put scare quotes around “gay marriage,” implying that it is not really marriage, or when liberals put scare quotes around “Romney's compassion,” implying that Mitt Romney lacks compassion.

I also had never heard of the “scare quotes” term before this summer. I had to look it up in the dictionary and one in Wikipedia, too. But it's now become so embedded in popular culture in both America and Britain that you cannot pick up a newspaper these days without seeing the scare quotes epidemic in action. With the American election campaign in full swing, scares quotes are having a field day.

When someone on the left or right doesn't like the language of the opposing side, the writer often put the words in scare quotes, to signal to the reader that he or she is of a very different opinion, and as a result, nothing gets resolved and only more confusion and noise results.

The scare quotes epidemic must be stopped, and strong measures must be taken to rein in this sloppy and incorrect use of language punctuation, according to Mollie Ziegler Hemingway. Writing in a recent blog for “GetReligion” and headlined “Scare quote epidemic spreads to 'natural' family planning,” referred to our earlier discussion of the scare quotes problem, Hemingway said she knows an editor in Washington “with many years in the business who sent along the latest example of the odd use of scare quotes

— although he called them ... 'smear quotes.'”

The current epidemic of scare quotes is turning America and Britain into cultures of name-calling, scare-quote throwing shouters. Scare quotes now appear regularly in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. America, both left and right, has gone “scare quotes” crazy.

How to stop the epidemic? A “B.C.” comic strip that appeared on the comics page in The China Post on July 18 said it well. We are living now in a culture where liberals and conservatives drink water at separate water fountains in the park, the cartoonist implied — sarcastically — with one drinking fountain labeled “Conservatives Only” and the other labeled “Liberals Only.” This kind of scare quotes “scaremongering” (scare quotes mine) must be contained somehow, or the contagion will only get worse.

When a simple three-panel comic strip tells us to wake up and look at what the “shouters” are doing to our political culture, it's time for all of us to wake up. No more separate drinking fountains.

Disagree with each other if you want to, dear pundits of the left and right, but without the “scare quotes,” please.

Dan Bloom blogs about language at “plogspot101” in Taiwan.

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