If a speaker clearly emphasizes a word or a term, should it be written down in quotation marks?

e.g. Everyone's so intimidated by "big data."

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    Quotation marks have their function – quotation. Emphasising is something entirely different. I don’t know where this trend of quoting emphasis came from, but I wish it hadn’t. Nov 5, 2018 at 10:32
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - fair enough. So how would you make a spoken emphasis clear in a written-up account?
    – Dan
    Nov 5, 2018 at 11:12
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    @Dan Italics, bold text, underlined text – there are many ways. In contexts where no formatting is possible, I tend to use the relatively recent method of surrounding the emphasised text in asterisks (taken over from various forms of Markdown language on the Internet, like on this site), so instead of emphasis or emphasis, I’d write *emphasis*. Nov 5, 2018 at 11:14
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    @Dan I do: double quotes for literal speech quotes; single quotes for pseudo-quotes (e.g., the English gloss of a foreign term, scare quotes, etc.). But that’s rather idiosyncratic; unlike the use of quotes to indicate emphasis, which is pretty much universally decried, the exact use of single vs double quotes are a matter of style and preference. The main reason why quotes should not be used for emphasis is of course that it’s confusable with scare quotes, which indicate sarcasm: “I will ‘not’ tolerate this!” means almost the exact opposite of “I will not tolerate this!”. Nov 5, 2018 at 11:19
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    @Dan In this case, I might have done the same – because in the example given in the question, big data is not actually emphasised, but scare-quoted. As Jason’s answer says, you could add ‘so-called’ before it without changing the meaning much. Scare-quoted terms are often pronounced with greater emphasis in speech, but it’s an emphasis of clarity (the words spoken more clearly and slowly), rather than an emphasis of force/volume (the words spoken more loudly), which is what we’d normally call ‘emphasis’. Nov 5, 2018 at 11:30

1 Answer 1


Italics are used for emphasis and to identify words as words.

However, in this case, big data is not really being emphasized in terms of pronunciation, nor, as the sentence is written, are the words being used as words (as they are in this sentence).

Although this is mostly a matter of style, it's currently held by most that quotation marks should only be used for actual quotes.

If sarcasm is specifically intended, scare quotes can be used—but they have come to be used in cases where sarcasm is not the actual intent, such as with "big data" (their use here was deliberate), and, so, such sentences are often rephrased.

In the case of what we call air quotes (in person, people might make a quoting gesture with their fingers as they say something—even though it's not necessarily meant sarcastically), it's better to leave the phrase alone and precede it with so-called. This avoids any ambiguity of interpretation.

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

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.

In the final example, the use of so-called almost acts like a dialogue tag for "running," turning it into a pseudo-quotation. And the quotation marks, as stated, are only used in this specific case of calling attention to the one word. (Which is subtly different from emphasizing it with italics.)

So, your example sentence can be rephrased in a couple of way:

Everyone's so intimidated by so-called big data.
Everyone's so intimidated by the term big data.

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