Air Quotes: Don’t Be Fooled by Their Chirpy Demeanor

By April 21, 2010 culture, language No Comments

Previously here at the patch, I lamented the improper use of literally. (Although its misuse provides all sorts of comic relief for language folks like me.)

In that post, I mentioned another language quirk that provides ongoing amusement. This is of the nonverbal variety—a simple gesture. It’s the use of air quotes—or finger quotes—employed when a speaker wants to signal a certain word or phrase should be tucked into quotation marks.

What the air quote is for the speaker, the scare quote is for the writer. When a writer desires to give a word or phrase a negative, snarky, eye-rolling slant, she would tuck it into quotation marks. The quotes tell the reader to take the phrase therein as something other than what is literally written. Proper usage would be:

Rex raves about Plain Joe’s ice cream. He thinks he is a “connoisseur.”

The scare quotes tell us that although Rex may think he has a discerning palate when it comes to ice cream, we don’t agree with him (either because he is not a true connoisseur or because Plain Joe’s ice cream is awful).

Air quotes allow a speaker to gain the same emphasis of scare quotes with a simple gesture. While speaking out our sample sentence, we would use our fingers to create quotes in the air while speaking the word connoisseur.

But air quotes have gone wild. People are using them here, there, and everywhere . . . even for words and phrases that mean exactly what the speaker intends them to mean.  For example, air quotes would not be needed to stress raves in our sample sentence unless you mean the opposite—that Rex trashes Plain Joe’s ice cream because he hates it, but we want to poke fun at the situation, so we say raves but mean trashes.

So I’ve been wondering . . . what would happen if we combined literally with air quotes, as in:

Rex raves about Plain Joe’s ice cream. He thinks he is “literally” a connoisseur.

Placing literally in air quotes assigns a sarcastic bent to it, switching its meaning from actual to fictional. It produces this linguistic equation:

“literally” = figuratively

Therefore, Rex loves Plain Joe’s ice cream, but he knows he is not an expert . . . although he might claim to be one to sway the vote in favor of his beloved frozen treat.

Confused yet?

Here’s my advice: Use air quotes and scare quotes with caution. They look all cute, wrapping words in a cozy punctuation scarf. But they can squeeze the life out of your speech. You don’t want to be featured on this blog or this one. Proceed with caution, dear friends.

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