Smile when you say that

A GetReligion reader known as ceemac recently raised a good question about my use of the phrase sneer quote, and asked that I define the term.

Using quote marks would be appropriate, ceemac suggested, for phrases like these: “Christian Right,” “Jim Wallis Liberal,” “Christian Worldview,” “Liberal Worldview” “Southern Fried,” “Damn Yankee,” “Prestige Media,” “Eastern Elite,” “Dittohead,” “Free Bird Republican,” “Willie Nelson Democrat” and “Sneer Quote.”

I cited these four sources for my objection to such punctuation:

1. “Quote Unquote,” The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), William Safire, p. 288:

The meaning of the spoken or written quote-unquote . . . is “so-called,” casting aspersion on the word or phrase that follows. In American English, however, so-called is falling into disuse; it has the flavor of usage by speakers whose English is a second language. Quote-unquote — as a complete phrase, not separated by the words quoted — is now our primary deragator. A sneer is built in.

2. “Distinctive Treatment of Words,” The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, 6.63:

Other devices, notably the use of italics and question marks to achieve special effects, are not outmoded but are used less and less as time goes on, especially by mature writers who prefer to obtain their effects structurally . . .

[An example follows]

But writers who find themselves underlining frequently for emphasis might consider whether many of the italics are not superfluous, the emphasis being apparent from the context, or whether, if the emphasis is not apparent, it cannot be achieved more gracefully by recasting the sentence. The same reservations apply to frequent use of quotation marks to suggest irony or special usage.

3. Index to English, Seventh Edition, Wilma R. and David R. Ebbitt, p. 224:

But putting a word in quotation marks to signal sarcasm or ridicule (The “cute” Great Dane had eaten my sweater) is on a par with putting a question mark in parentheses to get a laugh.

4. The Associated Press Stylebook 2004, pp. 207-08:

FULL vs. PARTIAL QUOTES: In general, avoid fragmentary quotes. If a speaker’s words are clear and concise, favor the full quote. If cumbersome language can be paraphrased fairly, use an indirect construction, reserving quotation marks for sensitive or controversial passages that must be identified specifically as coming from the speaker.

One thing I learned from this good exchange with ceemac: People favor scare quotes over sneer quotes by nearly six to one. I’ll probably use scare quotes on future reference, and I’ll try to do so with moderation.

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  • Jan Bear

    I was hoping somebody there would cover the Patriarch of Jerusalem’s hasty departure. I’ve been following the news, but I suspect you’ve got better sources and probably more intact brain cells than I do.

    Sorry this is off-topic for the post. I couldn’t find an e-mail address for you.

  • ceemac


    I’d suggest using both snear and scare depending on the context.

    Here’s an example of each. Since the origanl article was about BJU I’ll keep using it as an example.

    He was “educated” at Bob Jones University.

    Those students at Bob Jones University hope to one day be a group of “Storm Troopers” who will take over……