What is the correct way to highlight a specific word in the following way?

She read until she came to the word packet.

I feel like it's either one of the following ways, but I'm unsure.

  • She read until she came to the word 'packet'.
  • She read until she came to the word packet.


  • I've been taught (for American English), that you use double quotes to indicate if you are referencing a word. So, I'd say: She read until she came to the word "packet." – VampDuc Nov 20 '15 at 19:53
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    As many below have written, this is a matter of preferred style, i.e., it is neither right nor wrong to favor either italic type or quotation marks. However, if using quotation marks, these should be of the double variety: "packet," not 'packet.' Many seem to believe that if something is not an actual written or spoken quotation, that single marks are appropriate. In American English, this is a mistake. Single marks are reserved for quotes within quotes. They have no other use. Also, in American English, the period should be placed within the marks. – user66965 Nov 20 '15 at 20:19

The Chicago Manual of Style acknowledges that both italics and quotation marks are valid, but recommends italics (emphasis mine):

Q. How do you set apart a word as a word in a sentence? As in “We are all aware the word fat could be offensive.” Would fat be in quotes, italicized, or just left alone?

A. Words used as words must be set off somehow—otherwise the meaning of the sentence can become ambiguous or even unintentionally funny:

  • He wrote the essay using fat instead of lard.

  • It was ironic that the misspelled word was right.

  • He wrote the essay using fat instead of lard.

  • It was ironic that the misspelled word was “right.”

Chicago favors italics, but quotation marks are also fine.

According to Purdue OWL, one should use italics:

Italicize a word when referring to that word.

  • The word justice is often misunderstood and therefore misused.

This is in contradiction to the recommendation to use quotes (or double-quotes) in the accepted answer to a related Stack Exchange question, but I would consider those references less authoritative: How do I refer to a word? Of particular note, the accepted answer referenced Grammar Girl, but this Grammar Girl page specifically explains that it's a style choice:

Double quotation marks can also be used when you are writing a sentence and you want to refer to a word rather than use its meaning. Since I talk about words a lot, this comes up in almost every Grammar Girl episode. It's a style choice. You can use italics or double quotation marks to highlight words, but we use quotation marks on the Grammar Girl site because it takes a bit of extra time to italicize words in our content management system.)

Short answer: You see both, and both are accepted/acceptable. But I would use italics as a general rule, all else being equal.

Grammar Tips articulates this take on it nicely:

...you will want to set it off either with quotation marks or with italics.

If there are many such references, italics are preferred because they create a much less cluttered look. And if the reader is likely to want to make note of "vocabulary" terms (as in a book or article on a technical subject), italics serve to highlight the important terms more effectively.

But for the occasional reference to a word as a word or to a word being used in some specialized way, quotation marks serve nicely.

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  • I believe the convention to use italics may be a bit dated. The Chicago Manual of Style also permits both, but at every editorial job I've ever worked, the style has been to use quotes and in my personal opinion, the quotes make a bit more sense in terms of calling attention to something (I've always seen quotes for, say, highlighting an ironic phrase). – Languagemaven Nov 20 '15 at 20:04
  • Concur that ironic quotes ( scare quotes ) should always use quotes not italics. But that may or may not impact how we approach this different usage. – Nonnal Nov 20 '15 at 20:08
  • Also, FYI, Chicago permits both, but prefers italics. – Nonnal Nov 20 '15 at 20:14
  • Are you looking at the 16th edition? Paragraph 7.58 there simply says "When a word or term is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself, it is either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks." Granted, it then says "Although italics are the traditional choice, quotation marks may be more appropriate in certain circumstances." However, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that saying italics are the traditional choice (i.e., that people have more commonly used italics in the past) means the same thing as that it "prefers" them. – Languagemaven Nov 20 '15 at 20:23
  • Good question. I have edited my answer to include the quote (actual word they use is "favors") from the CMS FAQ. – Nonnal Nov 20 '15 at 20:25

This is a matter of style, so you should be guided by your manual of style, either the one you've chosen or the one thrust upon you. I use the Chicago Manual of Style, which advises thusly (examples theirs):

Words qua words or words described as terms (See what I did there?) are "commonly italicized":

Use of the word desuetude when disuse will serve is often pretentious
The term gothic means different things to typographers and paleographers.

The same applies to letters

the letter q

but not their names:

an aitch

(the thing sometimes dropped in some dialects)

or when their use appears in common phrases:

mind your p's and q's

Since quotation marks are used for direct speech, those marks may serve better than italics when speech is implied

In Elizabethan dialogue a change form "you" to "thou" often implies studied insult.

Using italics for words as words allows you to use quotation marks sparingly ("as a last resort") for irony:

Five villages were subjected to "pacification."

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Use quotation marks for something like this, so this is the proper way:

She read until she came to the word 'packet'.

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