top of page

Q&A: Quotation marks and the term “Gypsy”

Updated: May 5

Today’s blog post answers these two questions:

  1. Can fiction and academic authors mix single and double quotation marks to mean different things?

  2. And is the term “Gypsy” ever okay?

It was sparked by this question from a researcher in cultural studies:

Q: I use quotation marks to emphasize that I speak of “Gypsy” (or “Gypsy space” or “Gypsiness”) when referring to ideology, imaginations, and stereotypes. When speaking of actual people, I refer to Sinti and Roma because this is the suggestion by the most important Roma organizations in Germany.

Now, I am considering always keeping “Gypsy” in quotation marks to highlight the social construction of this category – and show that it is highly problematic. Could I use single quotation marks or a different symbol, and perhaps include a short footnote?

A: There are two issues to untangle here, quotation mark usage and changes in the connotation attached to the word Gypsy. I’ll look at these separately.

Q1: Can I mix single and double quotation marks to mean different things?

First, I find that many fiction and academic authors use one kind of quotation marks for scare quotes, and another for quotations or dialogue.

This usage is commonplace in other European languages and in journalist publishing and style guides in English. That’s why it comes up with writers from many different language backgrounds.

For academic and fiction writing in English, though, the general rule (unless a really specific style guide says otherwise) is to stick to one type of quotation marks throughout. If you publish a monograph with an academic or trade press that follows The Chicago Manual of Style or similar, your editor will standardize this usage to one kind of quotation mark.

The only instance when you’d use the other kind is if you have quotes within a quote, for example:

“He said, ‘Do you want sprinkles with that?’”

Using different kinds of quotation marks looks messy in formal writing – to a trained editorial eye at least!

Now, fiction is a bit more flexible. I’ve had authors use different kinds of quotation marks to represent different voices in their head, or for when a deity speaks, for example.

As your writing is academic, you should stick to the style guide recommendations, though. If you opt to use quotation marks around the world “Gypsy,” stick with the regular ones you are using elsewhere in your text.

Q2: Is it okay to use the word “Gypsy” in academic writing? Should I keep the word “Gypsy” in quotation marks to highlight the social construction of this category – and show that it is highly problematic?

Now, this is a word whose connotations have changed over my lifetime! Twenty years ago, in mainstream UK discourse, the phrase had a mostly neutral connotation to refer to the Roma, and a set of associations with Otherness and a nomadic people. Nowadays, the terms Sinti and Roma are preferred as you say, and Gypsy has an increasingly pejorative connotation.

Of course, like queer, some people who identify with the category use it casually or have reclaimed it, which should be respected.

The US Merriam-Webster dictionary now flags the word as usually offensive (although still common in English) because of negative stereotypes associated with that term.

As a language geek, it’s fascinating to see language change in action over the course of my lifetime here!

A glance at the social science literature shows that the term was often used without quotation marks ten or twenty years ago. There is probably no consensus in the literature on how to use the term, and scholars may have debated it.

From a conscious and inclusive language perspective, my feeling is that a word can do harm whether it is put in quotation marks or not. But then, if your discussion is specifically a social science discussion about the ideologies and associations attached to a problematic word, then it does make sense to use that word.

I recommend avoiding quotation marks where possible, as they distract the reader. I had a similar issue when researching nationalism, in that I wanted to use quotation marks to make clear my position that nationalities are social constructions that could be different, and they don’t really exist. But if I started putting scare quotes around words like “English” and “French,” then a text on nationalisms would quickly look cluttered. So I opted to use a footnote instead that explained my position and then defaulted to no quotation marks.

In summary, I’d recommend:

  • Researching how the term is used in your field right now (given that the connotations are in flux and becoming increasingly pejorative)

  • Paying special attention to how scholars of that background use the term, while also accepting that there may not be any consensus on a style decision

  • Keeping the use of terms featuring the word Gypsy to a minimum when there is another appropriate term that can be used, such as Roma or Sinti in certain contexts

  • Keeping use of scare quotes to a minimum (because they are distracting) and using them only when not using them would endorse the term Gypsy.


If you found this post useful, sign up here for more storytelling and worldbuilding tips, or take my worldbuilding course.

Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.

They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.

You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!

98 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All