Referring to specific words or letters

Sometimes you may want to call attention to particular words or letters in a document. This is something I’ve had to do in my latest editing project.

I’ve been editing a newsletter for a Bible translation organization in the Pacifics. Because their internet connection is pretty slow, it’s hard for them to send large documents in Publisher format. Instead, I review the PDF and write my comments in a Word document.

So, as I need to give instructions to the local editor that I’m working with across the ocean, I might write something like:

    Change authorized to authorised.
    Lowercase radio in the Christian Radio station.
    Add a period after the p in p13.
    Change come to past tense came.

How do I call attention to the particular word I want to emphasize? There are, of course, a number of ways I could do that.

I could use all-caps:


Or I could use quotation marks:

    Change “authorized” to “authorised.”

Or maybe italics:

    Change authorized to authorised.

Or bold:

    Change authorized to authorised.

Or I could actually highlight the word (which I don’t seem to be able to do on this blog!).

Here are some guidelines (from the Chicago Manual of Style) for situations where you refer to words as words or to letters as letters:

1. To call attention to words as words, the preferred method is to italicize the word.

    Change come to past tense came.

2. But in certain situations, it may be more advisable to use (double) quotation marks.

One such situation would be where you have a foreign term with a translation. Foreign terms themselves are always italicized (unless they have become part of the vocabulary) so it will be clearer to use a different method for the translation.

    The Tigrinya expression kebdi id literally means “stomach hand” and refers to the palm of the hand.

Sometimes, using italics would seem to contradict what is being said. Consider this example:

    Foreign terms that have become part of the language, such as kindergarten and yacht, are never italicized.

On the one hand we’re saying that foreign words that have become part of the language should not be italicized and on the other hand we actually italicize two of them right there in the same sentence.

So, the above example would be a good candidate for quotation marks:

    Foreign terms that have become part of the language, such as “kindergarten” and “yacht,” are never italicized.

Of course, you’d also want to use quotation marks for words or phrases that you’re actually quoting:

    Lowercase radio in “the Christian Radio station.”

In this way, I’m calling attention to the word radio while referring to the phrase where the word is found.

3. When you refer to a letter of the alphabet as a letter, use italics.

    Add a period after the p in “p3.”

(Here too I added quotation marks for the part I’m quoting.)

School grades (written with a capital) are not normally italicized:

    I got a B on my chemistry test.


One option I mentioned at the beginning was to write the word you want to emphasize in all capitals. You may have seen this used in those “terms and conditions” you are asked to accept before downloading some software. Sometimes entire paragraphs are written in all caps. Frankly, I find all caps really annoying and particularly hard to read.

In fact, using all caps is considered bad taste in online writing because it looks like you’re SHOUTING! (And it could actually cost your job, as this article shows.)

So, to sum up: use italics as your default way for referring to specific words or letters. But use quotation marks as a backup method when italics would cause miscommunication. AND BY ALL MEANS, AVOID ALL CAPS!


(Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos. Please understand that I cannot vouch for the appropriateness of all images on that site.)


Who’s your target? The importance of defining your audience.

I’m back from Texas where I participated in an SIL editors’ orientation last week.

My topic today is: Defining your audience. Or, to put it differently, who’s your target?

Just like a picture that’s sharp and well-focused, a document that has a clear target will communicate better than one where the target is fuzzy.

If you’re working on a document right now—it could, for example, be a blog post, a CV, a letter to your local newspaper, or a pie recipe—ask yourself this important question: Who am I writing this for? This will determine what you write and how you write it.

In fact, your document may have several layers of readers. That was the case with the dictionary I just edited for a Bible translator on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. The main target was fellow Bible translators working in the Pacific island country.

But, since the dictionary was going to be published online, a secondary target was other linguists as well as non-linguistic experts who are interested in the languages of the region.

Not all of these people may be familiar with the geography of Vanuatu. So for the benefit of those who are not, I, as the editor, suggested some changes to the author, such as this one:

“people by the volcano say…” >
“people by Mount Yasur Volcano in the southeast say…”

Apparently, everyone on Tanna (and maybe in Vanuatu) knows about this famous volcano. But other readers may not share this knowledge, so for their benefit we decided to spell out the name and location of the volcano.

If you’re an editor, ask the author early on who his target audiences are and read the document with the various kinds of audiences in mind. Then suggest to the author any changes that may be needed.

As a writer, define your target audience early on and your writing will be crisp and clear.

Your fellow writer,

(Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos.)