Let's say I'm asking a question about the word "cheese". Which of the following should I use? I see various versions being used all over, and it'd be nice to have something consistent.

  • Does the word 'cheese' indicate something yellow?
  • Does the word "cheese" indicate something yellow?
  • Does the word cheese indicate something yellow?
  • Does the word cheese indicate something yellow?
  • Does the word cheese indicate something yellow?
  • Does the word cheese indicate something yellow?

6 Answers 6

I usually use italics. Sometimes I use “double quotation marks” when referring to long phrases or whole sentences. I would stay away from bold, verbatim, or plain.

+1. There are at least two users, kiamlaluno and myself, who have edited quite a few questions following this guideline. Sure, all kinds of things get posted, but eventually they are given a more consistent look and feel. There is quite a lot of editing going on. (I even put up with the Strunk and White stigma because of it. I think there was a suggestion somewhere here on meta to rename that badge.) – RegDwigнt Oct 15 '10 at 21:46
I was wondering, is there any specific use for verbatim in the context of EL&U? – Kosmonaut Oct 15 '10 at 21:53
@Kosmonaut I use use the long-form version of verbatim for formatting tables as here, because real tables are verboten on Stack Exchange. – nohat Oct 15 '10 at 22:41
@Kosmonaut Beyond the use of verbatim for formatting tables for proper tabular alignment, it is also useful for setting IPA. That’s because Georgia lacks Greeks or phonetic extensions, or combining characters, so you are left at the mercy of a browser’s font-substitution whims, which often leaves it looking like a ransom note cut up from different magazines. /ɪntɚˈnæʃənəl foʊˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəbɪt/ vs /ɪntɚˈnæʃənəl foʊˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəbɪt/; [me̞ð̞it̪e̞ˈrã̠ne̯o̞] vs [me̞ð̞it̪e̞ˈrã̠ne̯o̞]; etc. In Georgia, the difference is even more notable than here. – tchrist Sep 1 '12 at 17:49
One slight difficulty is that if you also want to use italics for emphasis, it can be confusing. – Nate Eldredge Nov 2 '12 at 1:19
@NateEldredge You can always use bold for emphasis in that case. – snailboat Sep 3 '14 at 14:28

To add on to nohat's answer, italics are really the standard typographical practice for this. Wikipedia states that italic type is used when...

Mentioning a word as an example of a word rather than for its semantic content (see use-mention distinction): "The word the is an article".

As another authoritative example, the excellent blog Language Log written by a number of professional linguists also uses italics in this way. Here's an example, chosen for no reason other than that it's their most recent post that requires the use-mention distinction:

Words like fantastic and absolutely work well [for infixing expletives], and formations like fan-fucking-tastic and abso-bloody-lutely are well established in colloquial English; Tiggy's fan-flaming-tastic had a more newspaper-printable choice of expletive (still profane, because flaming is an allusion to the flames of hell, but not unacceptably profane, even from a royal nanny).


My usage, as I put it in a post some time ago,

In this medium, where writing and typography has to express speech and sounds, I use italics and boldface like this:

  • I use plain italics only for citing examples and titles. Never for emphasis.
  • I use boldface for emphasis. These are words that would be LOUD in my speech.
  • I use bold italics for technical terms, usually with capitals, and links if I have them.
  • I also use bold italics in examples to point out individual parts that get mentioned in the text.

I have found that this formatting practice holds up both in Official Answers and also in comments.
These are habits I formed because I have to explain grammar and language and it's not easy
to do that using unaided English orthography and no sound effects.

I really like this system, because it cleanly separates quoting/mentioning from emphasizing. But, especially in comments, I find bold too, well, bold. – Dan Bron Aug 31 at 11:54
Loud is, well, loud. And in speech we use it sparingly. Generally I only use it to make a pedagogical point, which of course not everybody needs. But teaching creates its own habits. – John Lawler Aug 31 at 12:43

In the example presented by Claudiu—"Does the word cheese indicate something yellow?" I would follow the Chicago Manual of Style convention of italicizing words used as words:

Does the word cheese indicate something yellow?

I would do so not because this particular option is inherently superior to other ways of calling out a word used as word, but because I've done it for 35 years, to the point where the practice has become almost automatic for me.

I don't, however, use italics in all instances that involve calling out a word used as word in an answer. In single-word requests, where (in effect) the single word used as word is the crux of the answer, I follow the very frequent practice of SWR answerers on this site of putting the suggested word in boldface. I think of this as a convenience for readers who may be looking for the SWR suggestion—and nothing else—in each answer they scan. It's especially helpful I think for people who are considering their own SWR answer and want to scan the already-posted answers to see whether someone else has already suggested the word they want to nominate. For example:

For a single word meaning "a food consisting of the coagulated,compressed, and usually ripened curd of milk separated from the whey," I suggest cheese.

The other place where I use boldface formatting is when I am reporting multiple early instances of a word or phrase in answer to an etymology question. Here again the point is to give readers a quick signal as to where the relevant word or phrase appears in the block quote that I've retyped. People who want to read the examples carefully are welcome to do so; but for many readers, I suspect, only the immediate context—or perhaps only the bare existence of the word or phrase in the cited quotation—is of interest. It's very easy for italics to get lost in a paragraph-length block quote, and of course italics in the original source are far more common than boldface there. For example, from Transactions of the Department of Agriculture of the State of Illinois, volume 9 (1880):

The exportation of butter from January 1, 1879, to November 27. has reached 34,705,284 pounds; the excess over last year for same time, 13,518.230 pounds. The exportation of cheese for same time is 120,350,857; a falling-off of 8.638,316 pounds, as compared with last year, as per New York price-current report of November 27, 1879.

I'm certainly willing to reconsider my boldfacing practices if they strike enough people here as being obnoxious or counterproductive in some other way, but I think that they usefully serve the crucial purpose of making particular kinds of answers easier to read.


I don't really think code is a good alternative for adding emphasis. Code is for code, not visually highlighting something.

According to me, italics serve the purpose. They're called emphasis (<em>) in Web development too, so here you have it.


Actually, I think that the correct answer is single quotes. Double quotes are used for quoting a statement by someone else: -> Bill said, "I love pizza."

In the context of this web-site, this is used to indicate code. It has no proper use in normal prose.

Block quotes are for... well blocks of quoted text, usually from previous posts

bold is loud emphasis, e.g. a raised voice, while italics is for adding intensity to a word or phase.

Single quotes are references to the word in its general role, not as a part of the enclosing sentence, i.e. separated from semantics. To use your example:

Does the word 'cheese' indicate something yellow?

The word 'cheese' is no longer food in the sentence. It is a word. You can put any word in this sentence and it would still be proper.

Does the word 'run' indicate something yellow?

Does the word 'as' indicate something yellow?

Does the word 'preposterous' indicate something yellow?

In all cases the term in the single quotes has the same function in the sentence, no matter whether the word itself is a verb, noun, adjective, or whatever. In this sentence all are words, i.e. nouns because they are references indicated by single quotes.

I don't know where you got that idea about a distinction between single and double quotes. Wikipedia disagrees, for example. – Rahul Nov 29 '10 at 13:55
I think single quotes are recommended by some style guides for this purpose if italics are not available. – Marthaª Nov 29 '10 at 15:47
@Rahul - was that a serious criticism? Where did you get the idea that Moscow is in Russia? No, don't tell me now where I can find it out. Where did you get the idea? – bev Nov 29 '10 at 16:09
@Martha - I haven't seen that (not saying you're wrong). I forgot to mention the use of single quotes that everybody knows, quotes within quotes. – bev Nov 29 '10 at 16:17
If I offended you, I apologize. Perhaps I reacted too bluntly; I was just taken aback by your stating as fact, without justification, something which I knew as false. I just pointed to the quickest reference I could find, but I've now conducted a survey of a few books I have on hand: ten use double quotes while five use single quotes for quoting statements. – Rahul Nov 29 '10 at 18:55
@Rahul - You didn't offend me, but I appreciate the apology. First, it's not false as you claim. It's also not universally true. Anyone who studies language knows that there rarely is a right answer to questions where praxis varies. Language is a living thing that changes with use. The things most vulnerable to change are those things which are the least understood, and certainly the use of single quotes falls in this category. The truth is, there is no one single absolutely correct usage of single quotes. My post was a statement of what I was taught and what I've done for a long time. – bev Nov 30 '10 at 6:40
It makes sense to me. Are there writers who use single quotes in different ways? Certainly. But the guidelines I've supplied won't cause you to be misunderstood, so they're good rules. BTW, I should say that what I said about the function of single quotes is sometimes attributed to double quotes, but the function remains the same (re references). You must know that since the advent of online text processors (25 years) the opinions on the usage of bold, italic, quotes, etc hs changed considerably and are still in the process of being standarized? – bev Nov 30 '10 at 6:48
Hey folks, I think this is more a matter of the type of English one uses than anything else. In American and American-influenced English, double quotes are the standard for any sort of quotation in general usage. Single quotes are only used within double quotes. In British English and in English spoken across the Commonwealth of Nations, single quotes are the standard, while double quotes are used within single quotes. This is the general usage that I would assume most speakers adhere to. – Jimi Oke Dec 17 '10 at 0:46

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