Punctuating Words as Words

We recently finished up some definition essays in my college level courses. A question that kept coming up was “How do I punctuate words that refer to themselves?”

Do I use quotation marks or italics? Which of the following is correct?

“Humblebrag” is now in the dictionary.

Humblebrag is now in the dictionary.

There’s some debate about which is best, but ultimately it comes down to which style manual you are following. Since we are using MLA style, we follow their rules and use italics.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue offered this summation:

Do not use quotation marks for words used as words themselves. In this case, you should use italics.

EX: The English word nuance comes from a Middle French word meaning “shades of color.”

On Using Italics for Emphasis

Although, you don’t want to overdo it, italics can be used to help give the reader clues to the tone of a sentence by letting them know which word emphasize when reading. This can help clarify your meaning as well as add a sense of voice. (To make this easier to read online, I’ve bolded the words that would normally be italicized in print.)

  1. I didn’t say you stole my money.
  2. I didn’t say you stole my money.
  3. I didn’t say you stole my money.
  4. I didn’t say you stole my money.
  5. I didn’t say you stole my money.
  6. I didn’t say you stole my money.
  7. I didn’t say you stole my money.