Words as Words

Formatting, Ink

Words and Phrases Used as Words:

Most of the time we use words to refer to the things and ideas we’ve agreed they represent, but surprisingly often we use words to refer to themselves. It’s important to visually distinguish between these two types of uses to make the reader’s job easier. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  1. We use rewards to motivate students to keep improving their consistency
  2. We use rewards rather than treats to emphasize that students are earning these incentives not winning them.

Now see how differently the second sentence reads with a little formatting:

  • We use rewards rather than treats to emphasize that students are earning these incentives not winning them.

As you’ve no doubt surmised words used as words are usually distinguished by italicizing them. This blog is full of just these sorts of uses. Here’s an example from my post on the difference between compose and comprise:

  • “If you can replace comprise with include and your sentence stands, you’re safe from the fusspots.”

Exception to the Rule:

There are, as CMS 7.62 points out, a few times when italics don’t quite do the trick and quotation marks should be used instead:

  • When italicized foreign terms also appear in the same sentence: Use “on the contrary” rather than au contraire.
  • When italicizing the terms would seem contradictory: You shouldn’t italicize the term “voila” because it appears in English language dictionaries, having been adopted into common English use.
  • When the terms themselves are being quoted: He’s uses “abracadabra” and not “please” when his mother asks him for the magic word.

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