There are some punctuation marks that can make prose look absurd — especially with overuse. Scare quotes and exclamation marks are two of the most abused. Here are simple tests you can use to decide where they should appear in your own writing.
These are used to indicate quoted words, spoken or written. Standard styles do not use quote marks to indicate that a word is a term. Italics are used for this, and only sparingly. When they are used to indicate something besides a direct quote — and you’ll have to tell me what that “something” is — they’re called scare quotes.
[CMOS 7.55] “Scare quotes”. Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply, “This is not my term” or “This is not how the term is usually applied.” Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.
How to “decide”
Make “air quotes” every time you want to put a word or phrase in quotation marks. When you start to get carpal tunnel syndrome from “acting them out,” go back and “reassess” your “choices.” (Tweet this)
If you really do want to indicate the unusual use of a term, do it once, then set it without the scare quotes. “Please.”
These should be reserved for actual instances of outrage or exuberance.
[CMOS 6.71] An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.
[CP, 386–7] Do not overuse this strong mark of punctuation. Use it to denote great surprise, a command, deep emotion, emphasis and sarcasm. … Do not use an exclamation mark to end a mildly exclamatory sentence.
How to decide!
Each time you use an exclamation mark, leap in the air with pompoms. (Tweet this)
Feel right? Go ahead and use it!
Feel silly? Use a period instead.
You might be interested in the expanded Canadian take on scare quotes that I wrote for my Canadian, Eh? column at Copyediting.com.
Photo by Peter MacKinnon used under CC BY-2.0 license.