When writing, I sometimes want to refer to a word, as opposed to its meaning. For example: when correcting someone's grammar or semantics (there versus their), or when pointing out exemplary vocabulary.

On websites like this, I can simply italicize the word in question.

Abjure is a good word.

This feature isn't always available, though - notably in simple online chatrooms, and even in this website's question titles.

I've been using quotation marks, but now I've started second-guessing myself.

"Abjure" is a good word.

Abjure is a good word.

Is there a good way to refer to a specific word without throwing off the reader?

  • 5
    Do something other than nothing. That is, quotes, italics, bold, dashes, caps, whatever. My preference is single quote, because 1) all caps are annoying, 2) it works in ascii, and 3) double quotes are for quoting a source document.
    – Mitch
    Oct 4, 2011 at 21:20
  • 1
    We've discussed this on meta regarding formatting EL&U posts, at least; we tend to italicize within posts, as you've noticed, and many questions here use double quote marks in titles when it seems necessary (also, as you've noticed, probably because of the technical limitation that italics or other formatting cannot be included in the title, while the quotes can). These solutions work for us, but doubtless some institutions follow other style guides.
    – aedia λ
    Oct 4, 2011 at 22:12
  • 2
    @Maxpm Please keep the title in low caps, like other titles do.
    – Alenanno
    Oct 4, 2011 at 23:10

3 Answers 3


There's two types of solutions that I can think of:

  1. Change the expression of the word to indicate that you refer to the word, e.g. by change of type (italics, small caps, etc.) or by enclosing it in some symbols (quotation marks).
  2. Explicitly state that you refer to the word, e.g. "The word Abjure is a good word."

If you use the former solution I think it's best to go with single quotation marks, e.g.

'Abjure' is a good word.

For reference Grammar girl says:

Use Single Quotation Marks to Highlight Words Not Being Used for Their Meaning

It's the convention in certain disciplines such as philosophy, theology, and linguistics to highlight words with special meaning by using single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks.

  • 4
    Same Grammar Girl page: Double Quotation Marks for Words Used as Examples But really I think the double vs. single thing is regional.
    – GEdgar
    Oct 4, 2011 at 21:56
  • 2
    When there is no measurable benefit, use the option that doesn't require the shift key :).
    – ajk
    Oct 4, 2011 at 22:00
  • @ajk Single quotes use less ink than double quotes :)
    – Hugo
    Oct 5, 2011 at 6:54
  • Although you could argue it's obvious from the context in this example and single quotes can be omitted: "Abjur is a good word". But use whatever makes your meaning clearest.
    – Hugo
    Oct 5, 2011 at 6:58
  • @GEdgar Single quotes can be used as a way distinguish between references to phrases and quotes (quotes, such as examples, are written with double quotes).
    – N.N.
    Oct 5, 2011 at 7:16

I don't have a reference handy, but I was taught in school to enclose the word in quotation marks. Normally double-quotes, but if it's nested inside a quote, then use single quotes.

While there are probably many cases where the meaning would be obvious, one can easily think of confusing cases. Like: "The word above should not be used here." Do I mean the word spelled a-b-o-v-e? Or do I mean a word mentioned earlier in the document?

It's like the old joke:

Boss: There's one word I never want to hear you use again when rejecting a customer's request. That word is "unacceptable". Please, never say it.

Employee: Sure boss. So what's the word?


Enclose a word in double quotation marks if it is referred to as a word rather than used in the sentence to express meaning.

  • 2
    But N.N. has already mentioned this. Jan 26, 2015 at 0:04

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