Writing for Business

Jul 22 2009   12:07PM GMT

Use / mention distinction AKA words as words

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

typing Which is correct?
a. JeOS stands for just enough operating system.
b. “JeOS” stands for “just enough operating system.”

Answer: b

Explanation: The quotation marks here indicate that we’re referring to JeOS as a word (and just enough operating system as a phrase), not what it stands for. You can use either italics or quotation marks to indicate use of a word as a word.

What we’re saying is: The word “JeOS” stands for the phrase “just enough operating system.” However, as long as we use quotation marks or italics, we can omit “the word” and “the phrase.”

I like this explanation from Wikipedia:

Either quotation marks or italic type can emphasize that an instance of a word refers to the word itself rather than its associated concept.

Cheese is derived from milk.
“Cheese” is derived from a word in Old English.
Cheese has calcium, protein, and phosphorus.
Cheese has three e‘s.

The entry also explains other circumstances in which to set off words and phrases with quotation marks.

When not properly understood, the use/mention distinction can lead to all sorts of unfortunate circumstances. For example, Brandeis University found Professor Donald Hindley guilty of racial harrassment because University officials failed to understand the difference between using a word and mentioning it. That is sad, on multiple levels.

So, to cheer us up, let’s go look at The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. I feel better already!

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