Friday, January 19, 2018

When to Use Quotation Marks for Defined Terms or Acronyms

Whether it is appropriate to use quotation marks surrounding parenthetically defined terms or acronyms can be difficult to determine given the Bluebook’s lack of guidance and the seemingly inconsistent manner in which legal writers appear to use them.  The following guidelines and explanation, based on a survey of law review practices, should help to clarify when to use quotation marks.

I.  Acronyms

No quotation marks should be used with acronyms.

When introducing an acronym following the full spelled-out name, include the acronym in parenthesis without quotation marks.

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Department of Corrections (DOC)

II. Defined Terms

Quotation marks should be used with defined terms.

When introducing defined terms following the full name, quotation marks should be used.

  • California Law Revision Commission (“Commission”)
  • The 2005 Comprehensive Black Bear Management Policy (“Bear Management Policy”)
  • Amici curiae Construction Workers’ Association and State Builders’ Association (“Construction Amici”)

Those rules appear to be the majority practice among law reviews, and they make sense. When an acronym is defined, it is clear from the context that the parentheses are surrounding an acronym and no quotation marks are needed.  While, enclosing a defined term in quotation marks prevents confusion by making clear that the parentheses enclose a defined term and not parenthetical information (because defined terms can sometimes be several words long).

Disclaimer: The statements and views expressed in this posting are my own and do not reflect those of my law firm. They are intended for general informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion.


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Comments: 4

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  • Ricky Dessen

    Thank you for the post. This issue is often debated in my office. As a follow-up, I have three questions.
    1. Do you draw a distinction in the type of writing (e.g., business letter or legal memorandum)?
    2. If the Acronym is widely understood is it necessary to define it (e.g. EPA or OSHA)?
    3. If the writing will use an acronym and a defined term, do you follow the same rules (e.g. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or “Agency”))?

    • I’m glad you found the article helpful.

      (1) This article was based on a survey of law journals but I don’t see why this convention wouldn’t work in other settings.

      (2) This is probably more personal preference than anything but I don’t. It seems unnecessary when no one is likely to be confused.

      (3) I think that makes sense but I try to avoid multiple definitions for the same party. In your example, there would probably be no need for the “Agency” definition. If you refer to the EPA as the Agency, it wouldn’t be confusing or ambiguous in most situations.

  • Tracey Keryluk

    Thank you very much for the information; I found it useful. Another source that refers to the defined-term parenthetical is A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. One of the details it covers is when to include an article (“the” or “a”) within the parenthetical. The answer, as with most things, is “it depends”. Specific examples are given.

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