Air Quotes

Meaning of “Air Quotes”

Quotes or quotation marks (“ ”) stress upon the idea of meanings when they are used in a phrase, word or a sentence. Here air quotes are the gestures used while speaking. It could be ironic or may be intended to mock somebody or be sarcastic. They are also called “finger quotes” or “scare quotes”. The air quotes are expressed by using the index finger and middle fingers and lowering them twice.

Origin of “Air Quotes”

According to the studies, the use of “air quotes” is not very old. The earliest use must have been by Glenda Farrell in 1937 in a comedyBreakfast for Two”.  Later, the air quotes have been used by Paul Rudnick and Kurt Anderson in their article in Spy Magazine published in 1989. Some other programs such as Celebrity Charades aired in 1979 also used these gestures as a routine matter. Now it is a common thing to use air quotes when making some ironic remarks about somebody during television talk shows. Many people, including celebrities, use these quotes extensively if they want to make a point during their interviews.

Examples in Literature

Examples #1

From Coming Up for Air by S. Dean

I could just see her air quotes around the word Activities. When the questions began to roll, I wished I’d waited until she had gotten back to the office. I would have been able to avoid this stream of questions.

“Hi, Kennedy. No, I wasn’t with Seth –”

“Damn! I hoped you had been. So what else could’ve kept you until mid-afternoon, if it wasn’t Chef Hottie? He would be much more worth it than whatever you were doing.”

This paragraph has been taken from Coming up for Air by S. Dean. It is the story of Echo Wells, who is continuously facing losses in life through threats as well as unmarked packages sent to her. Here she states how she is seeing the activities of her friend using “air quotes.” This phrase used in this paragraph means that she is specifically pinpointing the activities that her friend is engaged in.

Examples #2

Wish: Indigo Ballet Series, Book #1 by Grier Cooper

 “I wish. No, my mom’s dragging us to some fancy luncheon later. She made me promise to dress like a lady.” She air-quotes with one hand, keeping the other on the wheel.

“What does that mean?”

“I know, right? And get this – my dad took me aside and said he and my mom are concerned because they thinking I dress too outlandishly.” Another air-quote.

“Is that even a word?”

This paragraph has been taken from Wish: Indigo Ballet Series, Book#1 by Grier Cooper. The novel depicts the situation of Indigo Stevens, who pursues her academic career for ballet avoiding the cutest boy, Jesse Sanders. Here the protagonist is talking about her mom using this word with a hyphen. This hyphenated use of air quotes has transformed it into a single word ‘verb’ that is showing an action of how she is using her hand to create a sense of using quotes.

Examples #3

The Art of Voice Acting: The Art and Business of Performing for Voice Over by James Alburger

“Another physical gesture that can make a big difference in your delivery is something commonly referred to as air quotes. When a word or phrase needs special emphasis or needs to be set apart from the rest of the copy, simply raise both hands and use your index and middle fingers to simulate making quotation marks in the air surrounding the words as you speak. The mere gestures almost force you to say the words differently by separating them from the rest of the sentence with a distinctive shift of attitude. Air quotes are best used in moderation and must be part of the fluid physicality of your performance. The challenge with using air quotes is to maintain the authenticity of your character and the context of the phrasing. This gesture may not be appropriate for all copy, and excessive use of air quotes can result in a delivery that sounds choppy and artificial. If you do nothing more than this single gesture, you will hear a difference, but when you use air quotes in combination with other physical movement, the effect can be profound.”

This paragraph is taken from The Art of Voice Acting by James Alburger. It highlights the use of air quotes when delivering a speech. He states that the use of air quotes is a good physical gesture when used wisely, but sometimes it can make your speech artificial. He also highlights that sometimes this gesturing for air quotes may not seem appropriate when it is used excessively. It must be used with some other physical gestures. The phrase has been repeated successively to clarify its meanings and usage. It has been advised that it should be used with a combination of voice and delivery.


In the following sentences, you will find scenarios where the speakers have used air quotes, either as sarcasm, irony, or to emphasize their points.

Fredrick tried to explain Jenny’s statement in the class. He said, “Jenny says, the voting was unbiased, and Roger is the prom king because he is a legend. He used air-quotes when he said “legend”.

“Everybody wants a ‘public board,’” she said, using air quotes while referring to publicly traded companies. (Fortune Magazine)

‘Oh, so you think your family is “supportive”, do you?’ Hannah said to Blecker. Here the word ‘supportive’ is used sarcastically.

“I was like, Sure, I’ll open a restaurant,” Syrie said, putting air quotes around the word “restaurant” with her fingers. (Winnipeg Free Press)

 Well, the new Prime Minister “says” she won’t raise taxes or fuel prices.