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quotation marks: unusual words or irony

Quotation marks may be used to enclose slang terms, technical terms or terms used ironically or in a special sense.


Slang and colloquial terms are often peculiar to one region and should be enclosed in quotation marks if they are foreign to the normal vocabulary of the intended readers:

  • The prairie fire was finally "gunnybagged" with the help of local farmers.

Vernacular terms used for effect in administrative documents and reports are treated in the same way.

However, the enclosure of supposed slang or colloquial words in quotation marks is often unnecessary. First, find out whether the term is now part of the standard language. If it is, quotation marks are not required.

If the term is still a slang term, determine whether using it, rather than a synonym that is standard, is warranted—for rhetorical effect or in order to demonstrate a person’s or group’s speech or style, for example.

Technical terms

Technical terms may be enclosed in quotation marks in non-technical writing:

  • The steel has to be "cold-rolled" before further processing.
  • A Stanford research team completed a global survey of "genetic markers."

This practice is often unnecessary, however, in an era when the educated lay reader has some knowledge of modern science and engineering. Depending on the target readership, technical terms may not need special treatment.

Words used ironically or in a special sense

Quotation marks can also enclose words used ironically:

  • Many "experts" were called in for consultation.
  • The party whip called the five renegade MPs in for a "full and frank discussion" of the issue.

Here again, it is often possible to avoid quotation marks by using the preceding text to prepare the reader for the irony.

Similarly, words used in a special sense or placed next to terms with which they are not usually associated require quotation marks:

  • The mayor was considered a "stuffed shirt."
  • There is a high-technology spillover which makes human communication with machines easier and is helping to create "intelligent" robots.