From today's NY Times:

Mr. Trump’s critics reach for words like treason and traitor because they, like others, are searching for an explanation for actions that are so different from those of his predecessors. Other presidents, including Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush, sought to build good relations with Mr. Putin’s Russia, but none seemed so willing for so long to overlook hostile Russian actions or side with Moscow over the agencies of their own government.

Shouldn't "treason" and "traitor" be in quotation marks (or otherwise set off)? In the quoted sentence, those words don't have their normal meanings. For example, "traitor" doesn't mean "a person who betrays their country", it means "the word spelled t-r-a-i-t-o-r". Or is this just a NYT style thing?

And I'm also curious: is there a relevant term for this usage? I'm thinking of an expression that could be defined as: "a word treated as a word rather than as a referrer to something else"?

PS: I know I've assumed an answer to my first question by the way I've punctuated it it, but couldn't think of any other way to make my meaning clear. I guess I'm asking whether punctuation is required, rather than optional as the NYT seems to assume.

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    I am no editor, but looking at that entire article, the first time these words are mentioned, the text uses quotes, the second time it does not. I feel that this is a style choice (somewhere in the NYT internal style guide), and I think it is appropriate. The first is necessary to point to a mention of the word, the second time they are left out as unsightly repetition.
    – Mitch
    Jul 18, 2018 at 19:05
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    I think there's also a distinction to be made between mentioning words, as in the above example, and quoting specific words, i.e. if the article would have read, critics said "treason" and "traitor" and so on.
    – Mr Lister
    Jul 19, 2018 at 6:15
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    I think the bigger problem is using "like" when they probably meant "such as" (inclusive rather than exclusive). Jul 19, 2018 at 8:50
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    @TobySpeight You'd be mistaken there. There's nothing wrong with 'like' in this instance.
    – lly
    Jul 19, 2018 at 13:55
  • I misread the title and thought this was about (pronunciation) how the cadence is supposed to change when spoken words are in scare quotes, which when written use 'apostrophes' (?) not "quotes".
    – Mazura
    Jul 19, 2018 at 23:11

4 Answers 4


Although you can put treason and traitor in quotation marks or italics, the use of words like in the sentence to indicate that they are being referenced as words rather than syntactic entities means that you don't have to.

The use of quotes or italics is more common, but it's not essential in this construction.

Also, between quotation marks or italics, italics would probably be preferable because of the association of quotation marks with scare quotes which indicate irony or doubt.

Speaking of scare quotes, preceding treason and traitor with words like is the same sort of thing as preceding a word with so-called instead of putting it in quotation marks.


  1. There are many "sympathizers" who agree.
  2. There are many so-called sympathizers who agree.

You normally use one form or the other. The use of so-called means that you don't need to put sympathizers in quotes because you've already signalled its upcoming status.

From The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), 7.59:

A word or phrase preceded by so-called need not be enclosed in quotation marks. The expression itself indicates irony or doubt. If, however, it is necessary to call attention to only one part of a phrase, quotation marks may be helpful.

      So-called child protection sometimes fails to protect.
      Her so-called mentor induced her to embezzle from the company.


      These days, so-called “running” shoes are more likely to be seen on the feet of walkers.

Update: As requested in a comment, here is what Chicago (7.63) says about words as words specifically:

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. Proper nouns used as words, as in the third example, are usually set in roman.

      The term critical mass is more often used metaphorically than literally.
      What is meant by neurobotics?
      You rarely see the term iPhone with a capital i.

Although italics are the traditional choice, quotation marks may be more appropriate in certain contexts. In the first example below, italics set off the Spanish term, and quotation marks are used for the English . . . In the second example, quotation marks help to convey the idea of speech.

      The Spanish verbs ser and estar are both rendered by “to be.”
      Many people say “I” even when “me” would be more correct.

There are no hard and fast rules, but there are general guidelines. You will find exceptions to most things. Comprehension and consistency are the key points.

  • 1
    Did CMS say anything in particular about referring to words, i.e. the situation, like in the OP, of "the word 'traitor' has seven letters" vs "the word traitor has seven letters" ?
    – Mitch
    Jul 18, 2018 at 17:06
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    @Mitch Yes, I have provided that as an update. Jul 18, 2018 at 17:43
  • The quoted CMS rule justifies using either italics or quotation marks for this purpose, but it does not give one the option of altogether dispensing with any indication that the words are to be treated as words, which was done in the article that prompted the question.
    – jsw29
    Jul 19, 2018 at 18:23
  • @jsw29 As a guideline, yes. But as I said, there are always exceptions. The use of italics or quotation marks serves as a visual cue for words as words. But in this particular sentence, they are prefaced by the words, so the usage is understood. (And indication was not dispensed with—it just wasn't represented visually.) Strict followers of Chicago would have used formatting. But, not everybody follows Chicago. As is pointed out in a different answer, The Times follows its own house style which does things differently. Jul 19, 2018 at 18:29
  • @JasonBassford, granted. The purpose of my comment was to suggest that, given that the answer takes the trouble to cite an authority (CMS) justifying two of the three possibilities (italics, quotation marks), it might be a good idea to provide parallel treatment to the third option (doing nothing, as long as there is no serious risk of misunderstanding) and cite an authority for it.
    – jsw29
    Jul 19, 2018 at 18:44

I can't speak to whether the New York Times is following a style guide that bids them to leave off the quotation marks. I would have written that paragraph with quotes.

I can, however, answer your second question. The term you are looking for is the "use-mention distinction."

From the above-linked Wikipedia article:

The distinction between use and mention can be illustrated for the word cheese:

  • Use: Cheese is derived from milk.

  • Mention: 'Cheese' is derived from the Old English word ċēse.

The first sentence is a statement about the substance called "cheese"; it uses the word 'cheese' to refer to that substance. The second is a statement about the word 'cheese' as a signifier; it mentions the word without using it to refer to anything other than itself.

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    @AndyT Even the quote I have is all over the place in terms of formatting. I wouldn't ever take formatting on Wikipedia as a guideline for anything. Jul 18, 2018 at 16:15
  • @AndyT Personally I don't like italics because the formatting is lost with cut and paste... sorry, can be lost.
    – Mitch
    Jul 18, 2018 at 17:07

Or is this just a NYT style thing?

Of course it’s a New York Times style thing.

Their in-house style guide is the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which—being neither free nor online except in occasional citation by their blog—is less influential than the University of Chicago's manual of style. Their own plug for their new edition defers to the greater relevance of the Associated Press Stylebook:

The Associated Press has long been the gold standard for uniformity among most international news publications. But for over a century, The Times’s stylebook has set a parallel course when it comes to journalistic style.

On the bright side, Google Books has one of the old editions in preview mode:


News copy uses italics most sparingly, a convention rooted in the era of metal type, when they were usually inaccessible. Now, however, italics are available—for a quotation, for example, to convey the speaker’s emphasis—but The Times’s own writing should preferably express emphasis through word order and word choice. Do not use italics for GENUS AND SPECIES names or for publication names or cultural titles; see the separate style entries for those. [...]
       While the news sections do not italicize foreign words, an exception is made for The Times Magazine and the Book Review, reflecting the more literary flavor of a weekly periodical. In those sections, use italics for words that are indisputably foreign—either absent from the English dictionary or included but labelled foreign. Commanly borrowed expressions like haute cuisine and haute couture, gulag, glasnost, and perestroika remain in roman type, as do foreign proper names. [...]

parenthetical attribution.

When attribution is inserted in midsentence, it must be truly parenthetical—that is, set off by commas at both ends. Otherwise ambiguity or error results: In Idaho the Forest Service announced that two hikers were missing. (The announcing could have taken place anywhere, but in Idaho is meant to tell where the hikers are missing.) The phrase the Forest Service announced is known as a parenthesis, and it does not modify what follows or govern the tense of the verb later in the sentence. Surround it with punctuation: In Idaho, the Forest Service announced, two hikers are missing. [...]

quotation marks.

Use double marks in news copy for direct quotation of speech or writing. A quotation within a quotation takes single marks: “I do not know the meaning of ‘collegial,’ ” he said. “Please tell me.” If the inner quotation enclosed yet another quotation, that third level would require another set of double marks. But a newspaper, edited for rapid comprehension, should rarely exceed two levels of nested quotations. When a single and a double quotation mark fall side by side, separate them with a thin space, to prevent a line break from occurring between them.
       Picture captions and news summary entries use the same marks as news copy. So do the large initial letters that begin articles in many feature sections.
       In a headline, a bank, a subheading, a chart heading, a caption overline or a “blurb” floating in a news article, use the single mark: Governor Regrets ‘Partisan Squabbling.’
       If an expression in a foreign language carries quotation marks, so should any parenthetical translation: the papal blessing “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”). [...]
       Do not use quotation marks to enclose dialogue labeled with Q. and A. or passages in which each paragraph begins with the speaker’s name or a label like The Judge and The Witness. Verbatim TEXTS AND EXCERPTS (including transcripts) and TESTIMONY do not take quotation marks, except for any direct quotations within the textual material.
       In general, do not use quotation marks around slang or jargon words; the marks convey condescension. If the terms are used, the context should be justification enough. But use the marks with words or phrases that are used in an ironic or opposite sense: That sad day was the only “happy” one he could recall.


Readers have a right to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said. The Times does not “clean up” quotations. If a subject’s grammar or taste is unsuitable, quotation marks should be removed and the awkward passage paraphrased. Unless the writer has detailed notes or a recording, it is usually wise to paraphrase long comments, since they may turn up worded differently on television or in other publications. “Approximate” quotations can undermine readers’ trust in The Times.
       The writer should, of course, omit extraneous syllables like “um” and may judiciously delete false starts. If any further omission is necessary, close the quotation, insert new attribution and begin another quotation. [...]

Taken together, the basic points are

  • The NY Times hates italics on principle for historic reasons and avoids it in general, though less so in the supplements or for examples set apart from other text within the style guide itself.

  • The NY Times takes quotation marks very seriously and doesn't employ them for generic attribution of general sentiment; it employs them for things they have the attributed speaker on tape having said in those precise words.

In this particular instance, the writer was speaking in general terms of the kinds of things several people are saying—rather than a specific thing a specific person (on tape) is being recorded having said—and so omitted the quotation marks as a matter of house policy.

The reason for the policy is to strengthen the importance and implicit quality control when America's 'Paper of Record' goes on the record with a quotation.

  • I agree it's there thing but most newspapers follow suit here, too.
    – Lambie
    Jul 19, 2018 at 16:07

At least in the field of linguistics it is common to print mentioned expressions as slanted. I am not aware that this practice extends beyond this field or is recognized as such by average readers. Though, it seems generally preferable to italics because italics usually indicate emphasis, slanted text does not necessarily.

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    Most people have no idea that italic and "slanted" are different things.
    – tchrist
    Jul 18, 2018 at 22:15
  • I'm not sure "average" is the best term Jul 19, 2018 at 4:57
  • @tchrist Italic and slanted aren't different things in nonjargon. If they're being treated differently, some examples very much should be added to the answer for clarity.
    – lly
    Jul 19, 2018 at 13:59
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    @lly since markdown doesn't allow one to specify oblique text, that needs a picture, and since ngofo doesn't have sufficient permissions yet to add a picture, I have edited to do so.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jul 19, 2018 at 14:16
  • Markdown does allow italics and very few people would actually take the slanted as anything except a stylized form. That said, thank you very much for your effort in illustrating the differences.
    – lly
    Jul 19, 2018 at 14:53

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