Say I define a phrase like 'pen' or '10 miles'. Then when I refer to these defined phrases inline in the text, how should I refer to them to let the reader know that I am referring to the defined phrase rather than the literal meaning of the phrase?

Should I use quotes (e.g., 'pen'), mark them as italic, or something else?

You may use a pen but don't use pen.

I'd like to hear your thought/suggestions as I assume there isn't any standard or style guide here?

2 Answers 2


This may be governed by your style guide. In APA (via SJSU):

Quotation Marks

to introduce a word or phrase used as an ironic comment, as slang, or as an intended or coined expression. Use quotation marks the first time the word or phrase is used; thereafter, do not use quotation marks (APA, 2001, p.82).

......the "without-online" students appeared to be alert and to learn faster than the "with-online" students. The without-online students exhibited qualities such as willing to guess, not being inhibited, willing to make mistakes, etc.

But what if you're redefining "pen" and also want to use the old definition, like in your example? The best option in my opinion would be to not do that because it's very confusing no matter what formatting you're using. Redefine a different expression. Remember, in academic and technical writing, people skim. The meaning of your redefined words should be clear enough to skimmers, or it should be clear that they need to go back and look up the term where it's introduced.


You have the right idea, make them distinctive. Quote them, capitalize them, use italics or bold or underlining.

However, if you really want clarity, make them words that are not spelled the same as any other words in the document, or make them a combination of words that cannot occur anywhere else in the document.

Like instead of calling it "pen", call it p-e-n. Or if some group names itself "10 miles", always write "the group 10 miles".

I wrote a mathematical paper in which I referred to something as a Representative vector. But never just as "the representative", or "the representative vector", for clarity it was always the two words "Representative vector" or "Representative vectors" with "Representative" capitalized.

If you want your writing to be instantly clear, don't invent ambiguities when you don't have to. Clarify with more words when necessary (e.g. I can't change the name of a group like "10 miles"), or invent words that don't conflict with existing words, or make them stand out in some way that is unambiguous.

  • 1
    Capitalising seems the best technique if you don't want to create a new word, although I'd capitalise both words (this also distinguishes a particular thing like the Republican Party from a generic republican party that just likes republics). In bygone years people might have written it in Latin or Greek.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 3 at 21:23

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