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Italics, Quotation Marks or Capitals?

Italics, “Quotation Marks” or CAPITALS? Have you wiped the sweat off your brow yet?

It’s a minefield – truly.  As with most things in writing, one of the most important rules is to be consistent.  Often there isn’t only one way – as a future post on ellipses and suspension points (to laymen – the 3 dots) will show.

But for today, we’re talking about italics.  And the reason I’ve lumped quotation marks and capitals into the name of this post is because if you aren’t meant to use italics, apart from when you are using them for emphasis, you could well be using capitals or quotation marks.

Fact!  Most people tend to overuse all three.

But when should you use italics?  Did you like what I did there?

Well, I’ve already mentioned their usage for emphasis, although your prose (company plug!) should mainly be able to carry that off on its own, although not always.

Many writers, at least those who go to the effort of checking, frantically look up ‘italics’ on Google along with the item they are searching for, or they pick up a reference or grammar book when they are at the editing stage, just to be sure.  I don’t blame them.  In many cases there is more than one right answer.  However, I tend to go with the New Oxford Style Manual for British English and The Chicago Manual of Style for US English.  Even they don’t cover every eventuality.

But, I digress; let’s look at some examples of where italics should be used as per best practice.

This list is not exhaustive:

  • titles of books and magazines – Far From The Madding Crowd, Catch-22, Hard Times, Vogue
  • film titles – Dirty Dancing, Armageddon, Jaws
  • names of ships, aircraft, spacecraft and trainsHMS Beagle, Air Force One, Challenger, the Hogwarts Express
  • music album titles – Up To Now, Achtung Baby, Rattle and Hum
  • orchestral works – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major
  • operatic works – Madama Butterfly, Turandot
  • paintings – Mona Lisa, The Creation of Adam, Starry Night
  • foreign words and phrases which haven’t been absorbed into the English language (my take on this is if it doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, it goes in italics). But there’s a caveat – more on that later. Me llamo Susan. Non trovo la casa.
  • titles of plays – A Streetcar Named Desire, The Taming of The Shrew

But be careful not to put punctuation in italics unless it forms part of the title of the work/item. So those pesky commas, full stops and question marks afterwards should be in roman type.

Talking of roman type, if you want to emphasise something which is already in italics, perhaps for one of the above reasons, then the way to do that is to put the part to be emphasised in roman type.  Alternatively this can sometimes be conveyed by being put within quotation marks. Do you see now how difficult it is to talk about italics without talking about other punctuation types too?

And here are a couple of examples where italics are generally not used

  • song titles – are conveyed by quotation marks around them. “Rhythm is a dancer”, “Stay”, “Angel of Harlem”
  • band names – capitalised only – Snow Patrol, U2, Duran Duran (yes, you can see my musical tastes are not particularly up to date)

With regard to foreign words and phrases, it’s normally only on the first instance of using the foreign word that it’s italicised, unless the sense is still ambiguous in subsequent occurrences.  In addition, words like vol au vent and tête à tête are not italicised from the outset, as they are in the English dictionary and readily understood.

Tune in next week for a post on Repetition


6 Comments

  1. vallypee says:

    Reblogged this on Val Poore and commented:
    A very useful blog post about some of the lesser know punctuation rules.

  2. I use italics for words that are thoughts. Right or wrong?

    • Hi Lucinda. It can be correct to use italics for thoughts. The key is consistency. Some grammar guides/reference books state that you can have quote marks with roman type and some state no quote marks but italics. If you’d like to give me a couple of examples, I will do my best to help. It also depends whether the thoughts are direct or indirect.

  3. Gale Leach says:

    Thanks for the helpful post. I’m stuck on one point with italics, though: should I use italics when I mention the name of a foreign language in its own language? e.g., “When writing in deutsch, don’t forget . . .” Appreciate your help.

    • Hi Gale
      So sorry for late reply and thanks for commenting. The rule of thumb is if it’s not in the English dictionary, then it needs to go in italics (at least in the first instance of it). So, if you had deutsch referred to 20 times, as long as it was explained after the first instance what deutsch was, then the subsequent references wouldn’t need to go in italics. Hope that helps, Susan

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