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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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