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?

3 Answers 3

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

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).


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 Narain 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 Narain 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

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .