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I was told the other day that when writing a report, the first occurrence of a word should be in quotes and all further occurrences should not. When I asked whether there was a rule to which words should be in quotes, he could not give definite criteria. I have since looked through some of his work and found that he puts an awful lot of nouns in quotation marks following the above rule. And it is not like he ever defines them in the text, they are just in quotes the first time that they appear.

My question is: is the above an actual rule for proper grammar? If it is not, is there a similar one that he might have got mixed up with? Or is it simply not a rule and just something he made up? I certainly hadn't heard about a rule like it before talking to him.

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  • I was told the other day that when writing a report, the first occurrence of a word should be in quotes and all further occurrences should not. "So" "does" "this" "mean" "that" "sentences" "should" "be" "written" "like" this?
    – Ronan
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 13:34
  • Not to that extreme as I did mention later on in my question that it was just nouns that he used like that, but you get the idea. There is a ridiculous amount of quotes in his work used like this. Surely this can't possibly be proper grammar? It looks so weird. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 13:36
  • I was being tongue in cheek. :) Can you give an example of what he is doing?
    – Ronan
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 13:38
  • I know, but you were strangely accurate :P An example I just made up: --This is a "sentence". Sentences form a "paragraph" when grouped together. "Punctuation", including "commas" and "periods", can be used within the sentences to portray their meaning in a clear way. This is why punctuation is useful.-- Obviously, a meaningless example, but you get the idea. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 13:41
  • This would seem only relevant in a piece of writing on terminology, like how a Wikipedia page might link to various other pages when terms are mentioned. From the sounds of things, your teacher is overusing the quotes - and suiting himself in the process.
    – Ronan
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 13:52

1 Answer 1

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There's no hard and fast rule, but many people use quotation marks for technical or unfamiliar words used for the first time (and defined either explicitly or in context); also, for highlighted or colloquial terms, which in these cases some sources might similarly recommend only putting in quotation marks the first time while others may allow that they should be in quotation marks every time used.

A Purdue University Online Writing Lab document (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/) republished by the University or Oregon has these instructions:

"Use quotation marks to indicate words used ironically, with reservations, or in some unusual way.....For words used as words themselves or for technical or unfamiliar terms used for the first time (and defined), use italics." http://tlc.uoregon.edu/publications/studyskills/GrammarHandouts/QuotationMarks(Purdue).pdf

While this source recommends to use italics many other sources suggest quotation marks, and especially when writing by hand italics can be difficult to use so impractical.

A University of Melbourne document has these related instructions:

"examples of how quotation marks are used in different situations.....

  1. Use single quotation marks to indicate that a word or phrase is used in a special way or that the word is the topic under discussion:
  2. Use quotation marks the first time a technical term is used in a document for a general audience:
  3. Use quotation marks to highlight a questionable concept:
  4. Use quotation marks for colloquial words in academic writing:" http://services.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/529776/Using_quotation_marks_Update_051112.pdf

Here is the guidance from the American Psychological Association for professional papers:

"Use double quotation marks ... to introduce a word or phrase used as an ironic comment, as slang, or as an invented or coined expression. Use quotation marks the first time the word or phrase is used; thereafter, do not use quotation marks." http://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/use-double-quotes.aspx

So what I am hoping to show from these examples is:

1) Credible sources often have similar but slightly different instructions 2) Generally sources prefer that a defined term is only put in quotation marks the first time, and afterwards not put in quotation marks 3) But for some terms some sources will allow using quotation marks every time.

Just to give a short example where it might be appropriate to use quotation marks every time a word is used.

Example: Some people use the team "bad" to mean good. A "bad ass", for instance, can mean the most accomplished person at a particular skill set. But the question arises, if these people use an altered language where "bad" means good, does this language become an impediment to recognizing what is traditionally considered bad and good? Do "bad"-speaking people make bad decisions because they poorly recognize potential decision trees which will likely have an unfavorable outcome?

Another example: I was told very young in life that it was "improper" for me to attempt to improve my social status or to mingle with those of a higher social status. I wonder what kind of proper rules of society can exist when what is considered "improper" eliminates one of the very best qualities of humanity, the ability to improve ourselves? And on a broader scale, I would think that such a definition of "improper" is quite incorrect if one hopes to have a successful society free of social upheaval.

But despite these cases where it may be appropriate to use quotation marks each time, in general my understanding is that they should normally only be used the first time a term requiring them is used, and cases where quotation marks are used more than just the first time for a term should be exceptions to the general rule for clarity or emphasis.

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  • This is a good answer overall, but I think the examples of repeat use of quotation marks for the same term actually demonstrate how distracting that treatment can be. In an environment where italics are unavailable, I would be tempted to use quotation marks only where the word is being used as the name of a term (what the Chicago Manual of Style calls "word used as word")—and not necessarily on first occurrence. So, for example, I would drop the quotation marks from "bad"-speaking in the first example and from the first two instances of "improper" in the second. Anyway, +1.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 3:42

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