Italics or Scare Quotes?

In speech, individuals emphasize phrases and demarcate ironic uses of terms by using vocal inflection. Written texts lack such inflection, and authors must compensate with some form of visual clue. Following the CMS, the SBLHS recommends the following practices (here we use red font to draw attention to particular terms or phrases):

1. When emphasizing text, use italics (CMS §7.47).

We highlight that, while the stories of both these historical maternal figures are similar, they are not quite the same.

If you quote another scholar who uses emphasis, preserve the italics from the source material and indicate in parenthesis that the emphasis was intended by the original author.

Laura Kipnis (2015) criticizes Bolick for answering an already-outdated question: “Is marriage really the basis of female ontology in 2015?… It’s depressing that women seem to keep forgetting that basically we can do whatever we want” (emphasis original).

If you wish to add emphasis to quoted material, italicize the relevant word or phrase and indicate in parenthesis that you added the emphasis.

The scholarly analysis notes that “black women have a substantially lower risk of marrying than white women” (Lichter, Batson, and Brown 2004, 19, emphasis added).

As a rule, we encourage authors to use italics for emphasis sparingly. An overabundance of italics diminishes the desired effect and may annoy or confuse readers, distracting them from the main point of your argument. Consider two versions of the same paragraph:

If the two prophets in Rev 11 may be identified as a symbol for the faithful, prophetic church, then the Sun Woman’s garb helps us to see her in this same light and not simply as a passive woman who is acted upon rather than being an agent exercising her own agency. In other words, the Sun Woman symbolically wears her righteous agency.

If the two prophets in Rev 11 may be identified as a symbol for the faithful, prophetic church, then the Sun Woman’s garb helps us to see her in this same light and not simply as a passive woman who is acted upon rather than being an agent exercising her own agency. In other words, the Sun Woman symbolically wears her righteous agency.

In the first version, many phrases are italicized, leaving the reader to wonder which point the author is highlighting. In the second version, italics are used sparingly, allowing the reader to quickly identify the main point that the author wishes to emphasize.

2. When using a word as a term, especially in a definition, use italics the first time (SBLHS §4.3.2.4, CMS §7.54, 58).

Single is defined as “unmarried or not in a romantic relationship.”

If the term is repeated, italics are not necessary on subsequent uses.

Sass is often defined as mouthing off, talking back, back talking, attitude, a woman not backing down to a man, or a child determined to have the final word in response to a real or perceive injustice or wrong.… Black feminist scholar bell hooks defines back talk or talking back as “speaking as an equal to an authority figure … daring to disagree … having an opinion.” Sass or talk back can refer to verbal and nonverbal behaviors, such as placing one’s hands on one’s hips or rolling one’s eyes.

3. When using a term as slang, use roman font. Only use quotation marks if the term is foreign or unlikely to be known to readers (see CMS §7.57).

The notion of a woman such as Delilah or Niki Minaj as a playa is not so much a blurring of lines or transgression of boundaries as it is evidence of the fluidity of gender roles and performativity.

4. When using a word in a nonstandard or ironic sense, one may use double-quotation marks (a.k.a. scare quotes, CMS §7.55). We discourage the use of single quotation marks.

I am sensitive to commentaries on Judg 1:11–12:7 that explicitly or implicitly read the text through the lens of “family values.”

However, one should use such quotation marks sparingly. Overuse can irritate the reader. More important, without inflection, readers can easily become confused: Is the author quoting from a source? being sarcastic? emphasizing a point? Does the author intend a special meaning for the term? Consider the previous example rewritten:

I am “sensitive” to commentaries on Judg 1:11–12:7 that explicitly or implicitly “read” the text through the “lens” of “family values.”

Where is the focus? Which terms are being emphasized? Which terms are used ironically?

If the sentence is clear without quotation marks, omit the quotation marks. If the reader may be confused about your possible meaning, reword the sentence to indicate clearly your disagreement with or ironic use of a term.

I am sensitive to commentaries on Judg 1:11–12:7 that explicitly or implicitly read the text through the lens of so-called family values.

Note: If a word or phrase is preceded by so-called, do not enclose it in quotation marks (CMS §7.56).

For the use of italics and quotation marks with foreign terms, see SBLHS §4.3.2.5.

Resource Quoted

The above examples are drawn primarily from Gay Byron and Vanessa Lovelace, eds., Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse (SemeiaSt 85 [Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016]). We have modified the sentences as needed to provide examples of how one should and should not use italics and quotation marks.

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