More word nobbling

I was thinking about this subject last night, and what should I find this morning but a good example of exactly the problem I wished to complain about? This comes from an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter:

I think our course with the Iraqi forces verges on the absurd: It is all about us training them. The question arises: Training them to do what? If it is a matter of knowing how to use a Kalishnikov in order to kill other people, I think most military-aged Iraqis don’t need our training. If it is a question of training Iraqis so they behave and act like American soldiers, that’s well and good. Except that is not what is needed in the circumstances we will be bequeathing them. What is needed is motivation based on loyalty to the powers that be. That will mean loyalty to various Shiite militias with a clerical connotation and loyalty to the two major Kurdish formations. Plus, perhaps eventually, loyalty to some Sunni militias based on a tribal allegiance. The motivation is not going to be created by American sergeants who are -- quote, unquote -- "training" them how to behave like American soldiers.

My problem is with the scare quotes. Scare quoting, for those who don't know, is the practice of putting a word or phrase in quotation marks to indicate something akin to sarcasm or skepticism. You can see it in the last line of the quoted paragraph.

Now, you'll note that this example contains both scare quotes and the verbal scare-quote signal, "quote, unquote." I feel this is an error on the part of the transcriber; in addition to cleaning up any ums and ahs, as well as various ineloquencies in phrasing, the author ought to have also removed the "quote, unquote" and just put quotes around training, since the signal "quote, unquote" is essentially just a remark on how the ensuing word should be perceived if it were in writing. As it stands, it makes the speaker look silly.

Nonetheless: I have a strong aversion to scare quotes precipitated in part by their abuse. While grading papers for a class at Berkeley I discovered that students have an alarming tendency to use scare quotes in formal papers, even the ones who stringently avoid other varieties of informal language. This is a rule that, I feel, ought to be hammered into students starting from their first courses on composition: Scare quotes are an informal stylistic technique that should always be avoided in formal writing.

I actually had a professor for a seminar who was asked, as we prepared to write our final papers, about the use of scare quotes in writing. He bristled a bit and told us that scare quotes are never acceptable. He went on to point out, correctly, I think, that scare quotes are essentially unnecessary. Most of the time you can remove the quotes and make no other change, and the sentence conveys exactly the same meaning in context. Take the passage above. The entire paragraph is about how Brzezinski thinks the training is fundamentally doomed to failure. Scare quoting the word "training" at the end does nothing to enhance his overall meaning or convey any additional nuance. The professor's advice was that if you can't convey the point of a given paragraph without using scare quotes the solution is to re-write the paragraph to convey your ideas better rather than to rely on the implications of scare quoting a word to make your point for you.

Further, even looking at just the sentence by itself, out of context, you can convey the exact meaning of the scare quotes by adding a few words. Take out the scare quotes and add "Alleged" or "So-called" before the word you want to scare quote. You now convey all the meaning you intended without the use of vulgar informalisms.

That professor's rant had such a profound impact upon me that I now refuse to use scare quotes in any context. Not in formal writing, not in informal writing, and certainly not when speaking to people. Verbal and hand-signal scare quotes annoy me to no end, for different reasons. The scare quote was invented to convey in writing a verbal emphasis that conveyed an additional meaning. If you can't convey the fact that you're being sarcastic or skeptical with your tone of voice, you don't deserve to be using sarcasm at all.

And now, a bonus rant on language: You will note my use of sarcasm in the preceding paragraphs. This represents surrender on my part. Sarcasm, as used above, is mis-used. Sarcasm comes from the Greek, where the root word means, "to tear flesh." Sarcasm, according to the OED, Merriam-Webster On-Line, and, is a cruel and cutting remark. Sarcasm is defined by its meanness and wit. It is not necessarily a word or phrase indicating that the speaker actually means the opposite of what they are saying. That's verbal irony (as distinguished from dramatic or tragic irony). One can be sarcastic without being ironic and ironic without being sarcastic.

Some examples:

Person A: "I spit in that guy's coffee because he didn't give me a tip."
Ironic Reply: Person B: "That'll be a pleasant surprise." (Note that this remark isn't really cruel. It's not attacking anyone, but merely makes an ironic statement of fact).
Sarcastic Reply: "I see that forgiveness is not among your virtues." (Cutting, and every word intended to mean its dictionary definition).
Sarcastic and Ironic Reply: "How magnanimous of you." (Cutting, hostile, and "magnanimous" is clearly intended to mean the opposite of its dictionary definition).

Note that, as the various definitions make clear, verbal irony and sarcasm are often closely linked, but they need not be. Often, however, when people say "I was being sarcastic," what they really mean is "I was being verbally ironic." But, as I have discovered, "I was being verbally ironic," is both more difficult to say than "I was being sarcastic," and elicits quizzical reactions that require lengthy explanations such as this one. I have therefore succumbed to popular usage and use the word "sarcastic" when I mean "verbally ironic."

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on December 3, 2005 3:22 PM.

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