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.