I've read a few punctuation guides but am still having a very hard time differentiating between when inverted commas should be used over italics for certain words we reference but do not actually say or just repeat or think.


John says "unhealthy" in a line of dialogue: "This is becoming unhealthy."

Sarah responds by saying, "I don't want to hear the word 'unhealthy' any more."

I imagine that the above is ok rather than using italics?

2: John says something like, "We want to start a new life together."

Sarah replies, "Don't you dare say 'we'! You and the babysitter are not 'we'!"

Is the above ok rather than italics?

  1. In the 2 examples above, Sarah is referencing something that John actually said, but how about if she talks about something that noone has said.

E.g. "If I hear the words 'conspiracy theory' tonight, I will have to get drunk."

Is the above ok, or should italics be used instead?

"If I hear the words conspiracy theory tonight, I will have to get drunk."

  1. How about if words were written on a piece of paper and you later reference them.

E.g. Sarah reads a card that says: WELCOME TO THE PLAY AREA.

Later, she says to John, "This must be the 'play area'."

Is this ok, or should it be:

"This must be the play area."

  1. I believe that whenever you THINK something to yourself, then it should be in italics.

E.g. What an asshole, she thought to herself.

Is the above ok?

How about if it were:

Women think Oh, he's sweet. Men think Finally, someone who wants to sleep with me.

Is the above ok or should it be in inverted commas and why?

How about if you speak to yourself in your head, but don't speak: E.g. You are so weird she said to herself.

Is the above ok?

Thank you so much for anyone who can give advice about this - I've been tearing my hair out trying to get it right!

closed as primarily opinion-based by TimLymington, Hellion, Dan Bron, MetaEd, tchrist Sep 28 '15 at 23:46

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because although there are some broad guidelines, many of the finer details of punctuation are a matter of writing style rather than a simple matter of "correct/incorrect", and thus off-topic here. – Hellion Sep 28 '15 at 20:22

Punctuation is a matter of style, not grammar, and as such, you should consult your manual of style, either the one you've adopted or the one you've had thrust upon you. Even then, you will find variations in the rules. I recommend shaving your head to avoid the pain of pulling out your hair. I use The Chicago Manual of Style, hereinafter CMOS, and I'm not bald yet.

  1. CMOS recommends that words written as words be, for the most part, written in italics and that words quoted be enclosed in quotation marks.

John says unhealthy in a line of dialogue: "This is becoming unhealthy."
Sarah responds by saying, "I don't want to hear the word 'unhealthy' any more."

Here the first unhealthy refers to the word unhealthy, which John won't say until after the colon. Is Sarah throwing back John's word at him? If so, the quotes are appropriate.

But remember that quotation marks can mark the ironical use of of a word:

Pizza, the "healthy" choice.

And CMOS notes that quotes might be the proper choice in some instances. Their example:

The Spanish verbs ser and estar are both rendered by “to be.”

CMOS recommends putting foreign words in italics, and quoting the English translation avoids confusion.

  1. Quoting direct speech.

John says something like, "We want to start a new life together."
Sarah replies, "Don't you dare say 'we'! You and the babysitter are not 'we'!"

It's all direct discourse, including direct discourse within direct discourse, so quotation marks are recommended all around. Sarah isn't objecting to the word we; she's objecting to John's speaking the word to include the hot babysitter.

  1. Words as words:

If I hear the words conspiracy theory tonight, I will have to get drunk.

  1. Direct discourse.

Sarah reads a card that says "WELCOME TO THE PLAY AREA."
Later, she says to John, "This must be the play area."

The card may speak metaphorically, so quotes are appropriate, but when Sarah speaks of the play area, she's not quoting the sign or referring to words. She's talking about a location, so unquoted roman type is appropriate. Note that if the words are quoted, Sarah would be speaking ironically, as though she were viewing a yard strewn with broken glass.

  1. Interior monologue. CMOS says quote or don't:

What an asshole, she thought to herself.
"What an asshole," she thought to herself.

noting that James Joyce didn't bother with quotes for his characters' stream of consciousness in Ulysses. And who are any of us to gainsay James Joyce? I have seen first-person narrator interior monologue in italics and all other "speech" in quotes.

Just a final note. The word speech just above is in quotes because I'm using the word in a non-standard way, to include dialogue that isn't literally spoken. Just one more wrinkle.

  • Hi deadrat, Thanks so much--this is so useful! I am going to follow your advice. I am aware that sometimes more than one option is possible. I'm getting ready to self-publish my first novel and so am reading lots of other novels and realize that each author has their own way of doing things. Thank you so much for your help--I will definitely use it when finishing off the punctuation in my book! – MoniqueH Sep 29 '15 at 5:41
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    @MoniqueH Congratulations on finishing your novel. Since you're self-publishing, you control your own style. Punctuation is a gift to your readers to ease their job of parsing your narrative. Don't ignore convention, but choose that which clarifies and once you've chosen, stay consistent. Good luck. – deadrat Sep 29 '15 at 6:10
  • Thanks deadrat, I've just been re-reading your advice. You are very funny! I have another question if you don't mind (no problem if you don't have time!). I've read the style guide but am still unsure or may be misreading it. What do you do if a character WANTS to say something. E.g. I want to shout, "Stop! Get off me!" but the words don't come out. Is this ok even if he/she doesn't actually say anything out loud? In a novel I read recently, I saw something similar but in italics. E.g. I want to shout Stop! Get off me! but the words don't come out. What would you suggest? – MoniqueH Sep 29 '15 at 6:26
  • @MoniqueH Let me see if I can illustrate why your question depends on your story's style. Suppose the point of your story is that your character can express his emotions perfectly but only silently to himself. Then you might want to use quotes to show how close he really is to speech and let your description tell why he's mute. On the other hand, suppose your character engages in actual spoken dialog with other characters but keeps a running commentary in his mind about his interlocutors. Then to keep things straight, you might want the interior monologue in italics; the spoken, in quotes – deadrat Sep 29 '15 at 7:19

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