Does anyone know if there is a name to refer to the way a word is used in a sentence to either stand for its meaning or to refer to the word itself in some manner. For example:


  1. I ate an orange. Used in usual way
  2. What about the word, orange? Used to refer to the word itself
  3. You write the word as orange. Used orthographically to refer to the spelling

It's easier to explain this with a mathematical example,


  1. A U B is equal to C. Usage of A U B
  2. We write A U B for the union. Referring to the notation A U B and not the set A U B

I realize that quotes are usually used to distinguish, but it's not always the case as in the second example of set union. Maybe this concept is analogous to modality... Does anyone know if it's named?


1 Answer 1


This is called the use-mention distinction—that is, the distinction between using a word (to refer to something in the world) versus mentioning the word (in and of itself). Some people prefer the metaphor of the map and the territory: when you show someone a map of France, are you talking about France itself (using the word), or this particular map (mentioning the word)?

A classic example is that cheese comes from milk, while "cheese" comes from Old English.

  • And as in your example, it's typically to use quotes when in the mentioning case. And for orthography, we might write someting like "orange" is spelled O-R-A-N-G-E
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 16:10

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