People are familiar with using quotation marks around a person’s actual spoken words, but that isn’t the only time we need them. And when people encounter those other situations, they often are uncertain.

Here are a few guidelines on when quotation marks are appropriate:

  • When you use words that would not be familiar to the reader – Use the quotation marks to call attention to the fact that you are using a word or phrase that is probably unfamiliar to the reader. A Wall Street Journal story said that Wal-Mart alleged there would be “recognitional picketing,” which is picketing with the intent to get Wal-Mart to recognize a union. The quotation marks are appropriate because recognitional is not a word in the dictionary and because the the term recognitional picketing probably would not be familiar to the reader.

After the FDA has approved cancer medications, the drugs often come into widespread use “off-label”; that is, doctors prescribe them in combination with other drugs to try them in new situations.

  • When you use a familiar word or phrase in a unusual way, in the sense that it is not the common usage of the word. At the heart of phone companies’ networks are “carrier switches,” huge devices the size of railroad cars that route calls along hundreds of thousands of phone lines. What the writer is describing is not actually a switch; it is a large piece of equipment.
  • When you use a word ironically or humorouslyHe still works 40 hours a week but insists that he’s “retired.”
  • When you use a word to refer to that word itself, as in this example: When you go to that homepage, click on the word “articles” and pick the one you want. The writer is not referring to something called a word article. Instead, he is using articles to point the reader toward the word we commonly know as “articles.”

Additionally, be mindful of occasions when you do not use quotation marks:

  • When you precede the word with so-called.  The country was in the verge of a so-called fiscal cliff for months. The term so-called is a substitute for the quotation marks.
  • When a word is commonly used in everyday conversation and, therefore, is likely to be familiar to the reader. My neighbor is a real geek so fixing the Internet connection was a breeze.

Stylebooks are a useful guide when questions arise regarding quotation marks.