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How to Use Italics

You don't have to be Italian.

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
October 23, 2009
Episode #194

origin of italics

The Origin of Italic Type: Handwriting by Niccolò de' Niccoli (1364–1437) 

Today we’re going to talk about italics, that slanted type that you sometimes see amidst regular roman type.

Following the Rules

Open up any style guide and it'll give you a list of items that need to be italicized. The important thing to remember is that if your school or business follows a certain style guide, you should follow it too. The four main style guides that you may be asked to follow are the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, used by journalists; the Chicago Manual of Style, used by many publishers; and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers used by many students. All four contain detailed rules on when to use italics. The AP Stylebook is easy: the AP doesn't use italics. The rest are a little more nuanced, but you’ll be relieved to know that we won’t be listing all the rules here in the podcast.

Instead, we’re going to give you a medium-sized list of things you probably should italicize. Just be sure to double-check the style guide you’re supposed to use, as rules vary. Here goes: foreign words not yet assimilated into English—more on that later; legal citations; letters of the alphabet when you’re referring to them as letters; scientific names; titles of works, including books, plays, short stories, very long poems, newspapers, and magazines; titles of movies and radio and television series; names of operas and long musical compositions; and names of paintings and sculptures (1). You might also be asked to italicize the names of famous speeches, the titles of pamphlets, the names of vehicles (such as Challenger), and words used as words (2).

Did you memorize all those rules yet? Just kidding. You’re probably not going to be able to remember all the times you’re supposed to use italics, so keep your style guide handy. 

Although grammatical texts haven’t caught up with modern technologies like blogs and podcasts and don’t specifically mention these as far as italics, it would probably be safe to use italics to refer to them. That's what we do on the Grammar Girl website. Alternatively, though, you could probably also use quotation marks to refer to a blog or podcast name.

No Italics Necessary

You’re probably not going to be able to remember all the times you’re supposed to use italics, so keep your style guide handy.   

Strangely enough, the names of long sacred works such as the Bible or the Koran do not take italics (1). You just use regular roman type for those. And for chapters of larger works or episodes of a TV show, for example, you surround the chapter or episode name with quotation marks (3). So if you were talking about the second chapter of the well-known writing book On Writing Well by William Zinsser, for example, you would put the book title in italics and the chapter name, “Simplicity,” in quotation marks.

In addition, you’re not supposed to put the word “the” in italics when it is part of a newspaper name (1). So if you were referring to the New York Times, the word “the” would be in regular type but the other three words would be in italics.

You might be wondering what to do with punctuation marks around something in italics. In the past, you put them in italics, too, but according to the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style “A simpler, alternative system is to put these punctuation marks in the same typeface as the main or surrounding text” (3). So if you said, “My favorite book is Oliver Twist [period],” the title of the book would be in italics but the period at the end of the sentence would be in regular roman type.

Optional Italics

We’ve seen lots of rules where you must italicize something. Now let’s talk about a couple of places where it’s up to the writer. I mentioned earlier that you’re supposed to put foreign words in italics. You italicize these foreign words if they are somewhat unfamiliar to readers (4). If, on the other hand, a foreign word has been used so much that it has become part of English, you use regular type. Sometimes, though, it’s not so clear if the general public will know the foreign term. So, according to the Guide to Grammar and Writing (2), it is often “a matter of private judgment and context.” Most likely you would not italicize a common foreign phrase such as “vice versa,” but you probably would put sotto voce in italics. You as the writer get to decide based on the context and your audience.

Lastly, we use italics to emphasize something. Garner, a well-trusted grammar source, says about an older-generation grammarian, “H.W. Fowler cautioned that many people, though competent in their own special subject, don’t have enough writing experience to realize that they shouldn’t try to achieve emphasis by italicizing something in every tenth sentence. With experience comes the competence to frame sentences so that emphatic words fall in emphatic places” (4). Garner therefore advises us to use italics for emphasis sparingly. If you overuse italics, then nothing will stand out.

Web Style

Another modern point that often isn't addressed yet by style guides is that italics can be hard to read on a computer screen, so often, when you are given the option, it's better to use quotation marks to highlight text rather than italics when you're writing for the Web. That's why we usually enclose words and letters in quotation marks in the Grammar Girl transcripts instead of using italics.

Summary

With italics, it’s important to follow the style guide used at your business or school. If you don’t follow a particular style guide, though, just pick a format and be consistent.

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, the author of the The Grammar Devotional.

References

1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 265-7.
2. Guide to Grammar and Writing. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/italics.htm. Accessed July 27, 2009.
3. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 389-90.
4. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 470.
 
Italic Handwriting, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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