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Quote marks: Singles or doubles?

February 13, 2013

Based on recent writing tip I wrote for my work colleagues, which was triggered by a question I received from one of them. I wanted to remind my authors about our style guide’s rules for using quote marks. Our corporate style guide follows the Australian Style Manual: For authors, editors and printers in most cases.

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The question I was asked

Can you please confirm that quotation marks are only to be used when quoting someone and NOT when you are referring to a label or term, as in the example below?  Would you suggest just the underlining is sufficient or even just Capitals for the first letter of each word associated with the term?

…We define a “System” as an integrated set of elements/objects that perform function(s) to accomplish a defined objective.  The components and their interconnections comprise the architecture of the system.  A system is characterised by inputs and outputs and is bounded by constraints and requirements.

Systems Design” is the process of defining the architecture….

Systems Engineering” is an interdisciplinary field of engineering….

My response

Generally, quote marks (singles—not doubles—according to the Australian Style Manual) are used only for quotations:

‘Quotation marks … primary function is to show direct speech and the quoted work of other writers. Other uses are for enclosing the title of a song or an article in a periodical, and for drawing attention to a term that is unusual or recently coined.’ (Style Manual, p 112).

That last part indicates that they can be used to emphasise a term, as in your example. While your terms are not unusual or recently coined, they can be misinterpreted, so quote marks will make it clear that you are using these terms in a specific way. If you use quote marks, then change them to single quote marks and ONLY use them for the FIRST instance of each of those terms—not throughout the document.

If you want to avoid quote marks altogether, then:

  • avoid underlining as it can be confused with a hyperlink to a web page or another document.
  • avoid capital letters for anything that isn’t a proper noun (places, names etc. are proper nouns) or the first word in a sentence. So, in your example, the only time you would use ‘System’ with a capital ‘S’ is when it’s the first word in the sentence.
  • use bold OR italics for the words in question (though not both—that’s overkill, as is ‘Bold, Italic, Underlined, Capitalised, and Quoted’!).

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