Tag Archives: grammar

Writing and Using Italics

Italics refers to the slanted type style used in writing. Writers use italics to serve a purpose, such as to emphasize a word or to reference bibliographic material. But while there are many instances when italics should be used in writing, there are also times when it’s better to avoid italics. Knowing the following five dos and don’ts of this important tool can help strengthen a piece of writing and make it look more professional.

When to Use Italics

  1. Do use italics when citing or referring to certain works and sources. Names of the following should appear in italics: books, magazines, journals, pamphlets, newspapers (but not the, as in the Washington Post), TV programs (but not specific episodes), modes of transportation (ships, planes, trains, etc., but not their modifiers) movies, paintings, plays, long poems and musical pieces, websites, blogs, albums, and compact discs.
  2. Do use italics for writing letters as letters, words as words, and sounds as sounds. Note the proper use of italics in this sentence: The letter a and the word betray rhyme. Sounds reproduced as sounds, such as brrr and aaah, should also be italicized.
  3. Do use italics for unfamiliar foreign words or phrases used within a sentence. But if the foreign word or phrase is repeated throughout the text, it need be italicized only the first time it appears. This rule does not include common foreign words that have become anglicized, such as ad hoc, cliché, et al., etc., laissez-faire, per diem, and raison d’etre. Further, don’t italicize entire sentences or passages that appear in another language or proper foreign nouns (unless they should be italicized according to Rule 1 above.)
  4. Do use italics for introducing key terms. When introducing key terms to be discussed in a paper or report, the terms should be italicized, but only when first introduced. After that, they can appear in roman.
  5. Do use italics to show emphasis. This is especially helpful if the sentence is confusing without the use of italics. Still, some authorities disagree with the usage of italics for emphasis in any context. Rosalie Maggio, author of How to Say It (Prentice Hall Press, 2002), says “Don’t do this; italics cannot replace the hard work of good writing.” Most style books, however, say it’s okay to use italics for emphasis, as long as it’s done sparingly. If inserting italics into quoted material for emphasis, be sure to let the reader know you put the italics there by including (italics added), placed after the quoted material.

When Not to Use Italics

  1. Don’t use italics when they’re already used in a sentence for a different purpose and when quotation marks will suffice. For example, a sentence containing a foreign word followed by its English translation should feature the foreign word in italics and the English word in quotation marks (i.e., She always says poulet for the word “chicken.”) But when a common foreign word is used in the same sentence as an unfamiliar foreign word, both should appear in italics for the purpose of consistency.
  2. Don’t use italics when referring to scholastic letter grades. Letter grades, unlike letters used as letters noted above, should not be italicized: I got an A in English this semester.
  3. Don’t use italics for a character’s thoughts. Many fiction writers are confused about whether to put a character’s thoughts in italics. The short answer is no, it’s distracting and unnecessary. Usually, it’s clear that the character is thinking, not talking, by the writer’s choice of words: He thought, Why should I care? A story written in the first voice doesn’t need thoughts set in italics since the reader knows the thoughts belong to the narrator. But for dream sequences and flashbacks, some fiction writers prefer using italics to differentiate the scene from the main story.
  4. Don’t use italics for block quotations (long quotations of more than 100 words or two or more paragraphs). Instead, indent the quotation and set it in smaller roman type.
  5. Don’t use italics to make your writing more decorative. Like fancy fonts, writing that appears in italics looks unprofessional and is more tedious to read. Stick with simple, basic roman type.

Punctuation with Italics

What about punctuation that appears after an italicized word or phrase? The rules for punctuation and italics are a little confusing. The traditional method, and the one explained in the classic style book Words into Type (Prentice Hall, 1974), states that “commas, colons, and semicolons are set in the typeface (italic or bold) of the preceding word. Quotation marks, exclamation points, question marks, and parentheses are set according to the overall context of the sentence.”

While the current Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2010) acknowledges this traditional method, Chicago suggests that it be used, if at all, for print publications only. The better rule, according to Chicago and other more recent style manuals, is to put punctuation marks in the same font as the main text unless the punctuation belongs with the italicized word, such as a book title ending in an exclamation point.

Italics are an important tool for writers. Get to know the rules for using and avoiding them – and make your writing clearer and more professional.


Maggio, Rosalie, How to Say It Style Guide, Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press, 2002.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th Ed.), New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

Skillin, Marjorie J., et. al., Words into Type (3rd Ed.), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th Ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Thurman, Susan, The Everything Grammar and Style Book, Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 2002.
Credit for post

Passive and Active Voices

Passive and Active Voices

Verbs are also said to be either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved). Computerized grammar checkers can pick out a passive voice construction from miles away and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below). Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work.

We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by  self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers  (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus “Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children” places the burden on the ads — as opposed to “We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,” in which “we” accepts responsibility. At a White House press briefing we might hear that “The President was advised that certain members of Congress were being audited” rather than “The Head of the Internal Revenue service advised the President that her agency was auditing certain members of Congress” because the passive construction avoids responsibility for advising and for auditing. One further caution about the passive voice: we should not mix active and passive constructions in the same sentence: “The executive committee approved the new policy, and the calendar for next year’s meetings was revised” should be recast as “The executive committee approved the new policy and revised the calendar for next year’s meeting.”

Take the quiz (below) as an exercise in recognizing and changing passive verbs.

The passive voice does exist for a reason, however, and its presence is not always to be despised. The passive is particularly useful (even recommended) in two situations:

  • When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The unidentified victim was apparently struck during the early morning hours.
  • When the actor in the situation is not important: The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours.

The passive voice is especially helpful (and even regarded as mandatory) in scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the actor is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance. Instead of writing “I poured 20 cc of acid into the beaker,” we would write “Twenty cc of acid is/was poured into the beaker.” The passive voice is also useful when describing, say, a mechanical process in which the details of process are much more important than anyone’s taking responsibility for the action: “The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse.”

We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences.

The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal. The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behavior. If students withdraw from course work before suspension can take effect, the policy states, a mark of “IW” . . . .

The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy move from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.†

Passive Verb Formation

The passive forms of a verb are created by combining a form of the “to be verb”  with the past participle of the main verb. Other helping verbs are also sometimes present: “The measure could have been killed in committee.” The passive can be used, also, in various tenses. Let’s take a look at the passive forms of “design.”

A sentence cast in the passive voice will not always include an agent of the action. For instance if a gorilla crushes a tin can, we could say “The tin can was crushed by the gorilla.” But a perfectly good sentence would leave out the gorilla: “The tin can was crushed.” Also, when an active sentence with an indirect object is recast in the passive, the indirect object can take on the role of subject in the passive sentence:

Only transitive verbs (those that take objects) can be transformed into  passive constructions. Furthermore, active sentences containing certain verbs cannot be transformed into passive structures. To have is the most important of these verbs. We can say “He has a new car,” but we cannot say “A new car is had by him.”  We can say “Josefina lacked finesse,” but we cannot say “Finesse was lacked.”  Here is a brief list of such verbs*:

Verbals in Passive Structures

Verbals or verb forms can also take on features of the passive voice. An infinitive phrase  in the passive voice, for instance, can perform various functions within a sentence (just like the active forms of the infinitive).

  • Subject: To be elected by my peers is a great honor.
  • Object: That child really likes to be read to by her mother.
  • Modifier: Grasso was the first woman to be elected governor in her own right.

The same is true of passive gerunds.

  • Subject: Being elected by my peers was a great thrill.
  • Object: I really don’t like being lectured to by my boss.
  • Object of preposition: I am so tired of being lectured to by my boss.

With passive participles, part of the passive construction is often omitted, the result being a simple modifying participial phrase.

  • [Having been] designed for off-road performance, the Pathseeker does not always behave well on paved highways.

Credit to Guide to Grammar and Writing for the information in this post!!