Scary “Scare Quotes”

It seems a topic only too appropriate for today: I ran across scare quotes today in a page proof. They were used inconsistently, so I dug into my trusty Chicago manual to see the scoop and what rules might apply. As usual, I never open that book without learning something. 

“Scare quotes,” according to CMOS 17 (7.57), are used to alert a reader that some term is being used in a nonstandard way: to be ironic, as slang, etc. The manual cautions against overuse, warning that the device (much like the F-bomb, actually), loses its force and becomes irritating when overused. 

In my real-like example, a footnote in an accounting article refers to “big bath” accounting. The term “big bath” (which, by the way, is a sketchy if not fraudulent behaviour, in case you are interested) is used four times in just as many lines of text. It is encased in scare quotes three of those times.

Adding quotes to the fourth “big bath” did reek like overuse to me, but my consistency antenna was blinking, so what to do? A couple of paragraphs down from the don’t-overuse-it advice, I read that “a word or phrase preceded by so-called need not be encased in quotation marks” (CMOS 17, 7.59). That seemed like a workable solution: add so-called before the first occurrence of big bath, and establish the term without using quotes. 

BUT (because exceptions are the rule), CMOS goes on to say that quotes can (and maybe should) be added if only a part of the phrase is highlighted: so-called “running” shoes,

In the case of “big bath”, in this context it is indeed used as a modifier of not less than three nouns that are related but not identical: big bath charges, big bath accounting, big bath reporting behaviour. So, the exception to the rule may apply: so-called “big bath” charges sets off the modifier as being the ironic or nonstandard part of the phrase. 

Thus, as with many elements of style, there is more than one right way to do things, and as a proofreader, my only job is to check against the author copy. In this case, the proof matches the copy, so I choose the least invasive approach and add quotes to the fourth occurrence. Consistency trumps overuse for the lowly proofreader.

However, as a copy editor, I might flag this whole footnote to the author, and suggest introducing the term using so-called “big bath” charges,

Happy Hallowe’en!