Talking About Words

There is one very special use of quotation marks which it is useful to know about: we use quotation marks when we are talking about words. In this special use, all varieties of English normally use only single quotes, and not double quotes (though some Americans use double quotes even here). (This is another advantage of using double quotes for ordinary purposes, since this special use can then be readily distinguished.) Consider the following examples:

Men are physically stronger than women.
`Men' is an irregular plural.

In the first example, we are using the word `men' in the ordinary way, to refer to male human beings. In the second, however, we are doing something very different: we are not talking about any human beings at all, but instead we are talking about the word `men'. Placing quotes around the word we are talking about makes this clear. Of course, you are only likely to need this device when you are writing about language, but then you should certainly use it. If you think I'm being unnecessarily finicky, take a look at a sample of the sort of thing I frequently find myself trying to read when marking my students' essays:

*A typical young speaker in Reading has done, not did, and usually also does for do and dos for does.

I'm sure you'll agree this is a whole lot easier to read with some suitable quotation marks:

A typical young speaker in Reading has `done', not `did', and usually also `does' for `do' and `dos' for `does'.

Failure to make this useful orthographic distinction can, in rare cases, lead to absurdity:

The word processor came into use around 1910.
The word `processor' came into use around 1910.

If what you mean is the second, writing the first will create momentary havoc in your reader's mind. (The second statement is true; the first is wrong by about 70 years.) Here we have a particularly clear example of the way in which good punctuation works: in speech, the phrases the word processor and the word `processor' sound quite different, because they are stressed differently; in writing, the stress difference is lost, and punctuation must step in to do the job.

Printed books usually use italics for citing words, rather than quotation marks. If you are using a keyboard which can produce italics, you can use italics in this way, and indeed this practice is preferable to the use of quotes. In one circumstance, though, italics are not possible: when we are providing brief translations (or glosses, as they are called) for foreign words. Here's an example:

The English word `thermometer' is derived from the Greek words thermos `heat' and metron `measure'.

This example shows the standard way of mentioning foreign words: the foreign word is put into italics, and an English translation, if provided, follows in single quotes, with no other punctuation. Observe that neither a comma nor anything else separates the foreign word from the gloss.

You can even do this with English words:

The words stationary `not moving' and stationery `writing materials' should be carefully distinguished.

In this case, it is clearly necessary to use italics for citing English words, reserving the single quotes for the glosses.

Summary of quotation marks:

Put quotation marks (single or double) around the exact words of a direct quotation.
Inside a quotation, use a suspension to mark omitted material and square brackets to mark inserted material.
Use quotation marks to distance yourself from a word or phrase or to show that you are using it ironically.
Place single quotation marks around a word or phrase which you are talking about.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex