Words as Words
As an OEDILF Associate Editor, the most common changes I make or raise before setting limericks to confirming involve words as words. This page explains the basic concept and its various complications, and shows my own approach in dealing with them. Getting word-as-word formatting right at the writing or early workshopping stage saves time at the end and helps smooth your limerick’s path to final approval.
One of our OEDILF quirks is that we need a convention for indicating words used as words: for example, when we’re talking about the word “cat” as opposed to a living and breathing cat. Originally, we did what I did just then—used quotes around these “words as words”—but started running into punctuation difficulties:
“Cat”’s a funny word.
To avoid those, we moved to word-as-word italics:
Cat’s a funny word.
Whenever a word is being used to refer to the word itself, not the thing it represents, we put it in italics.
We usually put definitions in quotes to distinguish them from the words being defined: i.e., word means “definition”. This isn’t strictly required, though, if you have a particular reason for leaving the quotes out (for example, if the definition is very long).
“Means” Versus “Is”
The problems arise when trying to determine when a word is being used as a word. We can be pretty sure that in this sentence the author wants to tell us about a word:
“Cat” means a four-legged feline.
In OEDILF format, this becomes (with the period inside the quotes if you follow U.S. convention):
Cat means “a four-legged feline”.
Or, in another possible Author’s Note format:
cat: a four-legged feline
But sometimes it can be hard to tell whether a word is being used to denote the word itself or the thing it represents. For a long time, our position was that saying “means” was a sign that we were talking about the word, but “is” meant we were talking about the thing. Our editors routinely recommended against italics in sentences like the following:
A cat is a four-legged feline.
This recommendation went hand-in-hand with another test: whether you can put “the word” in front of a word and have the overall sentence make sense. If you can, it’s word-as-word and italics are called for.
The trouble with this test is that although it’s sufficient basis for word-as-word italics, it isn’t a necessary one. It doesn’t reveal every case where we need italics. Take this actual workshopping example:
“Fettle” is a state or condition of spirit.
Imagine how this would look—and sound—if we dropped the quotes and didn’t have the words in italics:
“Hello, Joe. Fettle is a state or condition of spirit.”
“Fettle. It’s a state or condition of spirit.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The word fettle. It means ‘a state or condition of spirit’, doncha know.”
“Oh. I see.”
There are some sentence constructions that only make sense (more broadly speaking, not only in grammatical terms) if the author is trying to tell us about a word as a word; and there are some that can make sense either way, depending what the author intends. For example:
A cat is a four-legged feline.
A cat is a four-legged feline.
Each of these makes sense in different contexts: the first in a documentary style, say, where the narrator is trying to tell us about the physiology of cats; the second in a discussion of words for different household pets. Both styles could even sit side-by-side in the same Author’s Note:
A cat is a four-legged feline. A cat typically enjoys chasing mice, sleeping in the sun, and manipulating its owner.
In these cases, we might have to ask the author what he or she intends, but this is better, I think, than asking him or her to rewrite every such case to say “[the word] cat means...”
My rule of thumb is this: when an author is drawing attention to a specific word within a sentence, it most likely is a word as word. Being able to put “the word” before it is an indication of this, but not the only possible indication. When an author feels the need to put quotes around a word, it almost certainly is such an indication, remembering that the only reason we started using italics for words as words was to avoid punctuational inelegancies arising out of such use of quotes.
That doesn’t mean there won’t also be cases where an editor might suggest italics to draw attention to a word as a word, when it’s obvious to the editor but not the author what’s going on.
The “Called Word” Situation
Another way to tell if word-as-word italics are needed is if we have a situation such as “this thing is called this word” or “this is known as this word”. Again, our italics are just a convenience to avoid punctuation problems that would arise from using quotes. People in non-OEDILF contexts might write something like:
This literary device is called a “metaphor”.
And in such situations, we would use italics. This helps explain why distinguishing between “is” and “means” isn’t always helpful for determining word-as-word situations. The following sentence is clearly a case of word as word:
What we call a cat is a four-legged feline.
But it’s perfectly reasonable to elide “what we call” in that context and to indicate that elision by using word-as-word italics on “cat”. In speech, we would indicate the elision by subtly changing the way we emphasized the word. In writing, we might do the same by putting quotes around it (if we weren’t writing for the OEDILF) or italics (our way)—if word as word were indeed the desired effect. In ambiguous cases, we as editors should take our cue from the author. Sometimes those cues can be found in the wider context. For example:
A camelopard is a giraffe, but we don’t use that word much nowadays.
In this sentence, the author is saying “A camelopard is [what we call this thing], but we don’t use that word...” What word? The word camelopard. Without the italics, a reader might not even know whether the word we don’t use is camelopard or giraffe.
Another case of word as word is when an author puts a word in parentheses to indicate what the thing they’ve just described is called. (This is almost the only reason for putting a synonym in parentheses, which effectively says “here’s another word for the one I just used”.) For example:
A four-legged feline (or cat) crossed the path...
A giraffe (camelopard) crossed the plain...
These are effectively “called word” situations, with punctuation providing the “called” aspect.
A Final Warning
Even when you think you have all this straight, it can get even more complicated. There are other situations out there that could be word-as-word or not, depending on authorial intention. Try not to push an author away from italics just because you can’t fit “the word” before it, or they’ve said “is” instead of “means”; explore their intentions first. This is usually more of an issue for Authors’ Notes than for limericks themselves.
And one last thing about word-as-word italics: they’re only the rule in limericks and ANs. When I’m typing comments in workshops, I’m often too lazy to type out italics tags and just use quotes. Don’t let workshopping shorthand guide the polished final product.
Reworked from workshopping comments from July 2005–February 2007.