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When Is a Word Not a Word? Names and Naming

Words all carry their own definitions and connotations. They can make up many different parts of a sentence based on placement and function. However, sometimes people want to refer to the word itself, not necessarily its function or definition. When this scenario happens, the word loses its original function and essentially becomes a name for the word itself. Naming words or letters seems straight forward enough; however, this act comes with its own rules and regulations to follow in academic writing. This handout will discuss ways that words are named as well as guidelines for using those names.

General Instructions

Most often, when referring to a word, term, phrase, or letter by name, you should typically use italics or set it off in quotation marks.  Ex: The phrase “there is no i in team” can often be heard at sports practices.

Italics are usually the best option, but it depends on the context. In certain electronic forms, such as email, italics may not be impossible. In such cases, quotation marks would be needed. In the above example, quotation marks are also used around the phrase to simulate speech while italics are used to refer to the letter i within the phrase itself. There may be other scenarios where you will need to refer to two or more different kinds of words in the same sentence, such as when translating a foreign word. In such circumstances, you may find it better to switch between quotation marks and italics for clarity’s sake.

Although proper nouns are usually used as names, they can also function as words sometimes too. When proper nouns are used as words, they are usually set in roman, which means that they do not use italics or quotation marks, so their formatting does not need to be altered.


References to letters by name are almost always italicized, except in the phrases “mind your p’s and q’s” and “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”

Letters are also not italicized when they refer to a grade in an academic course. In this scenario, the letter would be capitalized, set in plain roman (no italics), and pluralized without the use of an apostrophe. Ex: The girl was happy to have made all As and Bs this year.

As shown in the phrases above, when referring to the plural of lowercase letters, it is usually necessary to add an apostrophe before the s. However, capitalized letters do not require an apostrophe. This is because the addition of an apostrophe with lowercase letters is solely for the purpose of preventing misreading and confusion. For example, the phrase “two a’s in Aaron” can be easily understood, while the phrase “two as in Aaron” is easily misread. When referring to multiples of lowercase letters, the letter is italicized normally while the apostrophe and the s are in plain roman with no italics.

Sometime (especially in handwriting, when legibility is a concern) people prefer to use a letter’s actual name as opposed to the letter itself. When doing this, the name does not need to be capitalized or italicized. The Chicago Manual of Style provides the following list of names for consonants (vowels may be best described with alongside an example word, such as “a as in apple”).

b   bee                   gee                   l   el                         cue                   v   vee                   z   zee

c   cee                    h   aitch                 m   em                  r   ar                       w   double-u

d   dee                   jay                      n   en                     s   ess                    x   ex

 ef                       k   kay                     pee                  t   tee                    y   wye

Letters for Names

Sometimes people will want to use letters in place of names. When they are used in general reference to generic people, the letters are capitalized and set in roman (not italicized). Ex: A makes B angry; B retaliates against A.

When letters are used to refer to specific people, such as when only using the first letter of someone’s name, then usually the letter would be capitalized, set in roman, and followed by a period. (Ex: The students call their teacher Mrs. B. for short.) However, sometimes initials are used to conceal a name (this is sometimes seen in literature or politics). In this scenario, the letter is also capitalized and set in roman, but it is followed by a 2-em dash and a space instead of a period. (Ex:  J—— and B—— met after work.)

When using all of a person’s initials, you can omit the periods between the letters. (Ex: MLK, LBJ, JFK). However, this is up to personal preference because some people prefer to keep the periods after several of their initials and then spell out a full name, such as with J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Letters for Miscellaneous Contexts

Phonetic symbols are set in plain roman.

When using letters to refer to music notes or pitches, set the letter in plain roman and capitalize it. If adding sharp, flat, or natural, you can either spell out the word in plain roman and preceded by a hyphen or simply insert the appropriate symbol immediately after the letter. Join a series of pitches with en dashes. Ex: C–G–A minor–F is a very common chord progression in pop and rock songs.

When using letters to refer to rhyme schemes, use lowercase italic letters with no spaces between the lines of a certain stanza. (Ex: The English, or Shakespearean, sonnet’s rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg, while the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet’s rhyme scheme is abbaabba cdecde.) For clarity’s sake, you could also add commas in between the stanzas if you wish.

Letters can also be used to refer to shapes and figures. In this scenario, the letters are capitalized and set in roman (no italics). Ex: Some sidewalks have an S curve or are L-shaped.



Sometimes when writing about electronic or computerized processes it is necessary to refer to specific computer keys or terms. When indicating specific keys, single letters are capitalized and the first letter of command key acronyms are capitalized (Ex: F, F2, Ctrl, Alt, Delete, etc.). Acronyms for file formats are typically completely in caps (Ex: PNG, JPEG, GIF, etc.). Other functions, menu items, icons, etc. are usually spelled and capitalized depending on the way they appear in the application or program that they refer to. Pressing simultaneous keys can be indicated by directly linking the key names with plus signs or hyphens (Ex: Ctrl+Alt+Delete).

A Note on Clarity

Throughout this handout, you may have noticed that capitals and italics are the most common ways to indicate that a word or letter is being used as a name. However, capitals and italics are also used sometimes to indicate emphasis or irony in a word or phrase. Therefore, when writing, you must exercise caution when considering the use of capitals or italics for multiple reasons in the same paper. Clarity is very important in academic writing. If you want to emphasize a word but you are worried about confusion, consider restructuring your sentence to place the section in question at the end to add emphasis without the use of capitals or italics.



Resources Used:

"Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds: Italics, Capitals, and Quotation Marks." The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2010. 363-371. Print.

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