Italics and Quotation Marks

Q. Hello! What is the preferred formatting when calling something something else? (Sorry, that was confusing.) For example, in the sentence “People from Minnesota are called Minnesotans,” or the sentence “We call it baseball,” would the words “Minnesotans” and “baseball” need any special formatting, such as italics or quotes? I wasn’t sure if the rule for “words as words” applies in this case, and I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer elsewhere. Thank you!

A. CMOS doesn’t discuss this problem specifically, but thanks to your question we now have a name for it: “calling something something else.” If we had to formulate a rule, we might say that italics or quotation marks are usually unnecessary for words introduced with a form of the verb to call but may be used to highlight the word or phrase as a key term. In CMOS, you’ll mostly see an absence of italics or quotation marks after call: “The front of the leaf, the side that lies to the right in an open book, is called the recto” (CMOS 1.5). Or “The author’s own statement about a work is usually called a preface” (CMOS 1.41).

But starting with the seventeenth edition, we made an exception in chapter 5, where we agreed to italicize the names of grammatical concepts (many of which are unfamiliar even to editors):

Pronouns with antecedents are called anaphoric pronouns. (Anaphora refers to the use of a word or phrase to refer to or replace one used earlier.) (CMOS 5.28)

Sets of word forms by which a language differentiates the functions that a word performs in a sentence are called the word’s cases. (CMOS 5.35)

But here’s an interesting case of a different kind:

We is sometimes used by an individual who is speaking for a group . . . This latter use is called “the editorial we.” (CMOS 5.47)

Outside of chapter 5 we would have written that it’s called the editorial we (as we did in chapter 5 in CMOS 16)—italics for we as a word, but otherwise no special treatment for the phrase as a whole. For the sake of consistency, however, we put the phrase in quotation marks. (Alternatively, we could have written that it’s called the editorial “we”—reversing the roles of italics and quotation marks.)

In sum, consider whether you are focusing on the word or phrase as a word or phrase, or simply offering a description. Then be consistent about it—and watch out for tricky cases.