Italics: When to Use Them

italics cooltext244514055353042Fiction authors get to play with all sorts of fun things that our English teachers hardly mentioned. One of those things is italics. Oh, sure, you were supposed to put book titles and stuff in italics when you created that bibliography for your term paper the morning you were supposed to turn it in. But italics are good for more than just entries in a bibliography.

Here are some uses for italics that you may not have gotten into in English class:

Inner dialogue. This is when a character is talking to him- or herself in his or her own head. Here’s an example:

“Oh, sure,” Fred told his boss. “I’d be happy to work a twelve-hour shift tomorrow.” Especially because it will get me out of going with Francine to audition wedding-reception bands for the second straight weekend.

In this example, the only part of the conversation that Fred’s boss heard was the part between the quotation marks. The part in italics is what Fred said to himself. Also, did you notice the glaring lack of attribution in the italicized sentence? If you’re consistent about using italics for every instance of internal dialogue, you don’t need to tack on “Fred thought” – your readers will figure it out on their own.

For emphasis. Sometimes you want to make sure your reader reads a sentence the way you hear it in your head. One way to do that is to put the word or words to emphasize in italics. See how the meaning of the sentence changes when you stress a different word?

Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (Dad had nothing to do with it.)

Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (But Pansy didn’t do it, and now the dog’s gotten into it…)

Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (It wasn’t my job!)

Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (Not to use it as an art project.)

Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (The cat was supposed to stay inside.)

If you do this, however, use the technique sparingly. Like WORDS IN ALL CAPS and exclamation points, italics for emphasis lose their punch if overused. If you find you’re hitting the italics button a lot, you should probably reword some of your sentences for clarity.

Foreign words. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) has a whole section on this. Basically, if the foreign word is likely to be unfamiliar to your readers, you should italicize it. If it’s a foreign term in common usage – in vitro, for example, or etc. (which is the abbreviation for the Latin words et cetera, meaning “and others”) – you don’t need to put it in italics at all.

CMOS also says if you’re going to use the word a lot, you only have to italicize it once. I’m not sure I agree, although I don’t have anything to back up that gut feeling other than a sense that many readers aren’t as attentive as we’d like for them to be, and are going to wonder about the word on second reference. I’d give it two or even three uses before dropping the italics.

CMOS also doesn’t say anything about writing whole sentences in a foreign language. But in my most recent book, I wrote one side of a telephone conversation in Spanish and italicized the whole thing.

Book titles and stuff. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Here’s the basic rule: titles of books and periodicals are italicized, but the names of sections, chapters, or stories are enclosed in quotation marks. Conveniently, the rule for periodicals extends to many similar collections of things: music album titles are italicized, song titles get quotation marks; the title of an anthology or chapbook is italicized, but the titles of individual stories or poems are set in quotes; the title of a blog gets italics, but titles of individual posts get quotation marks; and so on. However, in the case of a box set, I would use italics for the title of the set and the titles of the individual novels, too.

What about letters, emails, and text messages? I would not put a whole letter in italics. I would instead use block-quote style, where the margins are moved in on one or both sides to indicate a lengthy quote. CMOS calls for block-quote style once you’ve hit five lines of quoted material. If you put anything – not just a letter – in block-quote style, don’t use quotation marks around it, too (although if there’s a quote inside the block quote, you should use quotation marks for just that part).

As for emails and text messages, CMOS suggests treating them like dialogue.

Those are the main rules. Questions? Anything I missed?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

33 thoughts on “Italics: When to Use Them”

  1. Good roundup of usage, Lynne. I think the main offender I’ve seen most often is overuse of italics for emphasis. One book I read had so many, they lost all impact. And re: italics for foreign words, I actually will raise you on that; I use them for the same foreign word throughout the story. I have one book that partially takes place in Mexico and every time someone says “Si,” I italicize it. I’ve heard that some people feel it’s being hit over the head (okay, I KNOW it’s a foreign language), but I think of it more as paying respect to the language. It just feels right to me.

  2. Thanks, Lynne. The rules seem to have changed for titles of books and periodicals – unless it’s a “country” thing (I’m in Canada). I was taught to use quotation marks but I’ve been confused for a while as I see others using italics as you suggest. thanks for setting me straight.

    1. It may vary from style guide to style guide rather than from country to country, Yvonne. I just checked the Associated Press Stylebook, and they call for quotation marks around book titles “except the Bible and books that are primarily catalogs of reference materials.” So that’s what you’ll see in newspapers and magazines. I consulted CMOS because I understand it’s the guide most book publishers use (or anyway, the one they crib from when creating their own house style).

      That said, if I listed all the things I was taught were true that have turned out to be a matter of style, we’d be here for a couple of days. 😀

  3. Thank you, Lynne. Using italics is another one of those gray areas we all need help in.

    Should that be ‘gray’ or ‘grey’? That’s another gray/grey area. 🙂

      1. Strangely, I work with a good number of US-based authors who prefer grey to gray. The irony is that I, an Anglo-Canadian who uses grey, find myself initially arguing with them (“We agreed to use US English, dammit!”) and then giving up and saying, “Okay, fine. Have it your way,” lol. In all seriousness, though, this is a significant proportion of the US authors I’ve worked with. Interesting, huh?

        1. David, Americans are a strange lot! 🙂 I know I’ve picked up on several Britishisms that I prefer over Americanisms. I guess the key is being consistent with whichever variation we use.

          1. For sure. And it can work the other way too. I’ve worked so much with US English now that I find myself Merriam-Websterizing my language a lot more! 😉

    1. Hi Ted, you can. You just have to use a bracket like the open one to the left of your question mark on the keyboard and then the letter i and close the bracket >, and then use the closing of bracket with a slash / i and then the closed bracket >. I can’t type it out, or I end up with this and LOL

        1. Hmmm…I attempted to bold this as well as italicize it, but it didn’t work…let’s try again without the italics: this.

          And now, both again: this.

  4. That’s not a bad round-up, Lynne.

    In my first novel I inadvertently hit on using italics for thoughts because I didn’t want to litter the text with ‘he thought’, ‘she thought’, or the even-worse ‘he thought to himself’. I have continued that.

    I would add one more: italicising the names of ships.

    Someone mentioned spelling variations such as in gray/grey. In New Zealand it’s ‘grey’.

    Also, down here in this Bucolic South Pacific Paradise we tend to ‘ise’ our suffixes – so realise (realise), surprise (surprize), and so on, which puts us at odds with the Motherland and the US.

    I have this attitude to the ‘rules’: does it help me? Does it help my reader? If the answers are yes then I follow them. If not, I don’t.

    – Paul Corrigan

  5. I’m with Melissa, italicizing foreign words all the way through for consistency.
    In a recent novel, though, I ran into trouble because I was already using italics for inner dialogue, and I had people speaking in a foreign language, which I was translating. So I used *Asterisks instead of quotation marks* as well as italicizing. Seemed to work.
    There. Tried the Html. See if it comes through.

  6. Hi Lynne,
    Thank you for the excellent article on using italics. I book marked it for future rereading and references. I especially like the use for inner dialogue.
    Best Wishes

  7. David:

    That is interesting. I think it doesn’t matter as long as you and the author are consistent. In other words, if you’re going to say ‘grey’ then stick to that. Don’t have ‘grey’ on pages 5, 10, 15, 20, and so on, but on pages 8, 16, 24, 32, and so on you have ‘gray’.

    I am a veteran of three newspaper stylebooks, another for a desktop publisher, and I have a fairly informal one for a writer I regularly edit for. I have an 80s version of The Associated Press stylebook, another for the Los Angeles Times, plus The Times (London).

    I find them all useful but I don’t treat any of them as holy writ.


    – Paul

    1. Oh, absolutely, Paul. I was being a bit of a goofball in my post, and my relationships with my author clients are nowhere near that fraught. 😉 As an editor, I’m perfectly fine with breaking from the convention or style manual/guide as long as we both agree to stay consistent with our rule-breaking. And especially if it’s a style and not a grammar issue (I might mount a defence of the latter).

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