Learn English – Using “scare quotes” inside a quotation


I understand that scare quotes can be used when a word is being used in a specialized, unconventional, or disputable sense:

The census bureau encountered problems when trying to define a “normal” family.

I also understand that, when quoting a quote within a quote, the convention is to switch from double to single quotes1:

The teller reported, “The bank robber whispered, ‘Give me all your cash,’ just before brandishing his gun.”

My concern is:

Does the switch to single quotes still apply when the inner quote marks are not quoted material, but scare quotes?

As an example, suppose I read a newspaper article that says:

The most equitable way to solve this problem is to enact a “vice” tax.

I want to include this quote in a report I am writing. My gut tells me that the correct way to do this is:

In an editorial published on June 4, a New York Times columnist wrote, “The most equitable way to solve this problem is to enact a ‘vice’ tax.”

However, when I looked for confirmation, I couldn’t find any. I found many sources that mentioned the quote-within-a-quote rule (switch to single quotes for the inner quote), but all the examples I ran across used cases where the inner quote was either a quote or title, not a scare quote. None of the grammar blogs or punctuation guides addressed the embedded scare quote problem.

For example:

Use single quotation marks for quotations within quotations.

Example: He said, “Dan cried, ‘Do not treat me that way.’ ”


The convention in American usage is to use double quotation marks (except for internal quotes) and to keep commas and periods inside final quote marks. The Chicago Manual gives this example of the normal usage:

“Admit it,” she said. “You haven’t read ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ ”

and from the Purdue OWL:

Quotations within a Quotation

Use single quotation marks to enclose quotes within another quotation.

The reporter told me, "When I interviewed the quarterback, he said they simply 'played a better game.'"

Quotation Marks Beyond Quoting

Quotation marks may additionally be used to indicate words used ironically or with some reservation.

The great march of "progress" has left millions impoverished and hungry.

Incidentally, I'm asking because a colleague asked me to review a report. I pointed out that the scare quotes inside her quotation should be single, not double, as she wrote them:

In an editorial published on June 4, a New York Times columnist wrote, “The most equitable way to solve this problem is to enact a “vice” tax.”

When she published her final report, the quotes were still doubled. I tried to find just one example in an online grammar column that would back me up directly, but the closest I could find was the split guidance I've shared here.

Bottom line questions:

1) Am I right in assuming that the scare quotes should be converted to single quotes when embedded in a quotation, much like other quote marks are?

2) Can anyone provide an “authoritative” example where this specific issue is addressed explicitly?

1Unless following Fowler’s advice in BrE

Best Answer

Put the scare-quoted material in single quotes, just as you would do with any other nested quotation. It's not your responsibility to distinguish between genuine quotations and scare quotes in the source material--and if you put yourself in that position, there's a chance you could guess wrong, which could open you to charges of misquotation. (For that matter, you could be accused of misquotation for dropping quotation marks, regardless.)