I am using MLA format and am lost for an equivalent to what the Chicago Manual of Style describes as "words and phrases used as words".

In my entire paper, I have chosen to put quotation marks in the following cases:

The term "power" is very important here because...

Whenever there is the signal term or phrase and then the word I use quotation marks.

Is there any MLA rule to back me up on this?

I have problems now with the following examples.

Theorist xyz introduces the concept of power in his volume ABC. By power, he means ...

Should I have quotation marks in this case as well to stick to my style:

By 'power', he means ...

or is it not necessary?

Any hint would be greatly appreciated.

This is what the CMOS has to say about this:

When is it appropriate to use quotation marks to set off a term that is being defined or described in academic writing? I edit casebooks and journal articles for law professors, and authors will often write sentences such as:

It will be helpful first to explore the meaning of the concepts of “public health” and the “common good.”

I find quotation marks unnecessary unless they are used to set off words coined by the author or if their usage is not standard. What do you think?

A. I agree that the quotation marks aren’t needed in the sentence you cite, but the difference between that sentence and one like the following, where the quotation marks would be standard, is subtle:

It will be helpful first to explore the meaning of the phrases “public health” and the “common good.”

Although those phrases aren’t coined by the author or used in a nonstandard way, it’s conventional to quote or use italics for words or phrases being introduced or defined (CMOS 7.58). For that reason, I wouldn’t fuss if an author wanted to keep the quotation marks in sentences like the one you quote.

  • Generally in MLA one uses italics, unless quoting as in you "by 'power'" example, but I'm not sure if anything was changed in MLA 8 in that regards. They changed a lot, and basically nothing for the better. Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:27

1 Answer 1


There doesn't appear to be a direct rule regarding these "words and phrases used as words". The closest I can find to an opinion on the matter is under an MLA resource for plagiarism, which implies that quotation marks are only appropriate when the words or phrases are directly borrowed from the original author or authors. Those would of course require a citation.

The article, to me, suggests that quotation marks shouldn't be used without a corresponding citation. It definitely leaves room for interpretation, however.

On a purely stylistic note, it is incredibly easy to start weighing a paper down with excessive quotation marks when you're new to a field because every other concept seems profound. The first draft of my thesis probably had these in nearly every paragraph - making it hard to read and just a little bit pretentious. So I would say it's probably better to err on the side of caution and limit your use of quotation marks for these types of words and phrases. You're going to explain the concept regardless!

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