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The Wonderful World of Italics

You don't have to be Italian to love italics.

By
Bonnie Mills, Writing for
6-minute read

Italic is the name for that slanted type that you sometimes see amid regular upright roman type. The name refers to Italy—it literally means “of Italy"—because the type style was invented in Italy back in the 1500s by the famous printer Aldus Manutius. You may not have heard of him, but when you look into the history of typesetting and printing, his name comes up all the time. 

When to use italics

These days, you can open 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 AP Stylebook, 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 because the AP doesn't use italics. In AP style, you generally use quotation marks where you’d use italics in other styles. 

Once you get beyond the AP Stylebook, the other style guides are more nuanced, but you’ll be relieved to know that we won’t be just listing all the rules today.

Instead, we’re going to give you a medium-sized list of things you probably should italicize  (and shouldn’t). Just be sure to double-check the style guide you’re supposed to use, because the rules do vary. 

You usually italicize the following:

  • "Foreign" words not yet assimilated into English—more on that later. 

  • Letters of the alphabet when you’re referring to them as letters. 

  • Scientific names, such as Drosophila melanogaster, the scientific name for the fruit fly. 

  • Titles of works, including books, plays, newspapers, magazines, and podcasts. 

  • Titles of movies and radio and television series. 

  • Names of operas and long musical compositions. 

  • Names of paintings and sculptures.  (1,2)

You might also be asked to italicize the names of famous speeches, the titles of pamphlets, the names of vehicles (such as the space shuttle Challenger), and words used as words. (3)

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. 

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.   

Here are some times you don’t use italics.

Sacred works

Strangely enough, the names of long-sacred works such as the Bible or the Koran do not take italics. (4) You just use regular roman type for those. Some style guides want you to use italics for the specific edition of these kinds of works though if you use them in a citation. For example, in MLA style, you’d leave the word “Bible” in roman type in the text, but you’d italicize the title The Bible in your citations when you are listing a specific edition such as the first edition of the King James Bible, published in 1611. 

Chapter titles

Another time you don’t use italics is for chapters of larger works or episodes of a TV show, for example, you surround the chapter or episode name with quotation marks (5). So if you were talking about the second chapter of the well-known writing book On Writing Well by William Zinsser, you would put the book title in italics and the chapter name, “Simplicity,” in quotation marks.

Podcast episode titles

The same goes for podcast episodes. You’d put Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing in italics, but you’d put the title of this episode, “First-Person Language. How to Use Italics,” in quotation marks.

Italics and punctuation marks

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.” (5) For example, if you wrote, “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. Chicago gives similar advice, but also says that if the punctuation is part of the title—like the exclamation point in the title of the Beatles song Help!—then you do italicize the punctuation mark, which makes sense because it’s part of the title. (2)

Italics for 'foreign' words

We’ve gone through a lot of rules where you do or don’t 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. 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. It’s often up to you to decide. Most likely you would not italicize a common "foreign" phrase such as vice versa, but you probably would put sotto voce (which means “in a soft voice”) in italics. You as the writer get to decide based on the context and your audience. 

And even though most style guides do say to italicize unfamiliar "foreign" words, recently there’s been a push to stop italicizing foreign words because it stigmatizes or otherizes the words—making them seem exotic or less valid—so this is something to keep an eye on. In the future, be sure to check your style guide because it’s quite possible the recommendations about foreign words will change. *

Italics for emphasis

Finally, you can use italics for emphasis, but think twice before you do so. Bryan Garner of Garner’s Modern English Usage notes that the older-generation grammarian, H.W. Fowler, said that he “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.” (6) Garner therefore says to use italics for emphasis sparingly, and the MLA makes a similar recommendation. If you overuse italics, then nothing will stand out.

If you do want to occasionally use text formatting for emphasis though, and you have a choice of which style to use, also keep in mind that bold text tends to be more readable than italics for people with dyslexia, so bold can be a better choice.

Bold versus italics

Another point that often isn't addressed yet by style guides is that italics can be hard to read not just for people with dyslexia but for anyone using a computer screen, so often, when you are given the option, it's better to use bold to highlight text rather than italics when you're writing for the web. That's also why we use the AP style on the Grammar Girl website and usually enclose words, letters, and titles in quotation marks instead of using italics. Although in this one article, we’ve used italics where we’d normally use quotation marks, just to make it easier to follow.

Summary

With italics, there are some general rules, but it’s especially important to check the style guide used at your business or school. If you don’t follow a particular style guide though, just pick a format you like and be consistent.

This article was originally written in 2009 by Bonnie Mills and was updated in 2021 by Mignon Fogarty.

*"Foreign" is in quotation marks to emphasize that words are likely only foreign to some people in your audience. "Non-English" would likely be a more accurate term, but style guides use the word "foreign."

References

1. MLA Handbook, 8th edition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2016.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2017.

3. Guide to Grammar and Writing. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/italics.htm. Accessed February 4, 2021.

4. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 265-7.

5. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 389-90. Accessed February 3, 2021.   6. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage, 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016, p. 533.

 
Italic Handwriting photo, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.

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