Air quotes for de facto in speech


One scholar used air quotes when saying "de facto" on TV, so I was wondering if air quotes can be used for emphasis or they are used only for sarcasm? And here is what he said,


The north Korea has "de facto" atomic bombs.


And the background is that although the north is not allowed to have atomic bombs and they also signed the agreement that they will not have them but as we know, they keep it and we already know it. So I think that the scholar used the air quotes but I think they are not necessary because the phrase, de facto already has the meaning implying the opposite so do you happen to use quotation marks or air quotes for the phrase and then when and why do you use them?


Thank you so much as usual and if you are not comfortable with this question, please ignore it.

edited Feb 18 '13 at 08:17 Hans Contributor

1 answer


Hi again,


Great question!  I agree that the commentator you saw on TV was using air quotes incorrectly with de facto.  Air quotes are used in spoken English in the same way that scare quotes are used in written English: to indicate that the air/scare-quoted word or phrase is used ironically, sarcastically, euphemistically, or that its truthfulness is doubted or contested in some way, by the speaker or others.  Air quotes are not used to merely emphasize a word or phrase.


You are right that de facto has the meaning actually existing, especially when without lawful authority, and that rendering its meaning ironically, sarcastically or in any of the other senses of an air quote listed above makes no sense.  A more apt use of air/scare quotes with respect to the status of North Korea as a nuclear power would be something like North Korea is "a member in good standing" of various nuclear non-proliferation treaties.


As well, the phrase de facto atomic bombs is not natural.  I have seen many references online to a de facto nuclear state, or a de facto nuclear power, both of which are more natural.


I hope this helps.  Let me know if you have any other questions about this.

link comment answered Feb 18 '13 at 12:09 Shawn Mooney Expert

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