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.”

Periods & Commas Need Our Protection


It’s nice when the rules of the language are simple to understand, and when there’s an interesting backstory that’s even better.

In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic….There are peculiar typographical reasons why the period and comma go inside the quotation mark in the United States. The following explanation comes from the “Frequently Asked Questions” file of alt.english.usage: “In the days when printing used raised bits of metal, [periods and commas] were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage (the face of the piece of type might break off from the body, or be bent or dented from above) if they had [quotation marks] on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always [putting commas and periods inside the closing quotes] regardless of logic.” – via Grammar Guide

Here’s a couple of examples:


John said, “Let’s go down and wade in the brook.”

“I’m afraid I might fall in,” Loretta replied. “But I did say ‘I love to swim.'”


John said, “Let’s go down and wade in the brook”.

“I’m afraid I might fall in”, Loretta replied.”But I did say ‘I love to swim’.”

“I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar.”

Of course, your English teachers have been telling you this for years, but Kyle Wiens confirms that poor communication skills–and specifically here, poor grammar–could end up keeping you from being competitive in today’s job market:

Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss’s more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar “stickler.” And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a “zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.

Now, Truss and I disagree on what it means to have “zero tolerance.” She thinks that people who mix up their itses “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,” while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job — even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.

via I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. – Kyle Wiens – Harvard Business Review.

Click on the link above to read his full explanation of why he feels applicants with poor grammar make bad candidates for employment.