Strategies for Introducing Terms in Writing

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In any type of paper or genre of writing, you might need to introduce key terms to your audience. In this lesson, you'll learn some strategies for doing so.

Key Terms

Think about the last magazine or newspaper article you read, or even an academic paper or journal. Were there any terms that you didn't know? How did the article or paper present these terms? Particularly in academic spheres, but really in any genre of writing, there are sometimes key terms that the writer needs their audience to know. In many cases, you can't just use the term and assume the audience knows it, especially if it is vital to the rest of the work. There are several different ways to approach the introduction of key terms in writing, depending on your subject matter.

Citation Style

If you are writing an academic paper, one easy strategy for figuring out how to introduce key terms is to look at the citation style you're using. For example, APA is a common citation style within the sciences, while Chicago style is popular for history papers. When it comes to key terms, these two major styles agree. They suggest putting new or technical terms in italics the first time you use them. If they are rare (i.e. they don't appear very many times in your paper), you might put them in italics every time, but if they are common then you only need to do it on the first introduction. Here's an example of what that might look like:

'Some patients have exhibited symptoms of the degenerative joint disease osteoarthritis.'

According to these citation styles, you should also use italics for a label. For example, '..the box labeled empty.' This helps your reader know exactly what is written on the label. This is especially useful in creative writing or English, though it is certainly used in other genres as well.


When a key term is first introduced, it might also be put in quotation marks, immediately followed by a description or definition of the term. This method is interchangeable with italics, and your choice for one over the other might depend on personal style or paper requirements. As an example, let's look at a passage from a National Archives article titled 'Introduction to Archival Terminology.'

''Manuscript repositories' are archival institutions primarily responsible for personal papers, artificial collections, and records of other organizations. Manuscript repositories purchase or seek donations of materials to which they have no necessary right.'

As you can see, the first time 'manuscript repositories' as a term is introduced, it is placed in quotations, and the following paragraph describes what they are. The second and subsequent times that the term comes up, it is not put in quotations. If the first use of the term had been italics instead of quotations, that would also have been correct.

No Separation

One other strategy for introducing key terms is to not separate them out in the sentence at all. That is, simply give the term and use the sentence it's in to describe or define it, without putting it in quotation marks or italics. Take, for example, another sentence from the same National Archives article:

'Archival terminology is a flexible group of common words that have acquired specialized meanings for archivists.'

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