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 trains – HMS 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.
Another post will be coming soon on the delights of quotation marks. Stay tuned!
It’s the one thing I can safely say every writer I’ve ever known has trouble with, except those with photographic memories, of course.
Should a particular word be hyphenated, or is it one word, or even two words?
The answer isn’t always simple and sometimes it depends on the role of the word in the sentence. Is it acting as a modifier before the noun? If so, it will usually be hyphenated. But if the modifying expression comes after, protocol dictates they should be separate words:
an up-to-date dictionary
the calendar is up to date
Throw into the mix the fact that various leading dictionaries offer different spellings and it’s easy to understand why hyphenation is such a minefield for many writers.
Here are a couple of other instances where hyphens should be used
- Numbers – eighty-three, seventy-four, twenty-seven
- Points on a compass (although US usage differs somewhat) – north-west
And don’t confuse a hyphen and a dash – they are quite distinct and have different jobs to do.
Now for a little quiz! Ask yourself if these words are hyphenated, not, or potentially both.
cul de sac
ill at ease
well to do
And to round off, horse-fly, horsefly or horse fly? I’ve added this simply as my Other Half has just taken a photo of one in the garden!
From a proofreader or editor’s point of view, unless it’s wrong or inconsistent, we won’t necessarily change it. In my own writing I still tend to hyphenate most words I’ve been brought up to recognise as requiring a hyphen, yet I know this practice is changing. English is evolving, or becoming more lax depending on how you prefer to look at it.
The most important thing of all is to be consistent! Readers WILL notice if coal miner becomes coalminer halfway through, or indeed half way through! (for the record it’s coal miner and halfway).
So what are your thoughts on hyphens? Do they cause YOU headaches?
I know, I know it’s been a while. Apologies, I’ve been very busy. I haven’t forgotten you all. Here’s a little post to keep you going. Enjoy!
Rest assured there will be many more posts and with more frequency. Remember if you want to navigate around the site, just click on the drop-down menus.
Qualities of a good proofreader
OK, it’s a given that a good proofreader must have an excellent command of the English language, but what else does she require? (For the purposes of this post, let’s call the proofreader ‘she’ !)
– Her attention to detail must be exemplary. Naturally she has to be able to spot that a colon should be used and not a semicolon, but if a glaring mistake escapes her, such as transposing two words, which do you think the reader is going to notice first? e.g. ‘Jimmy went to school 1993 in.’
– She is hawk-eyed, so notices things which slip through spell check like ‘gain’ for ‘again’, ‘whist’ for ‘whilst’, which are valid words in their own right, just not in your context.
– She exercises restraint and doesn’t overly intervene. She doesn’t change what’s correct, simply because it’s the way she would do something herself:
Hyphenation – nowadays there are often several ways to spell a word which in the past was generally hyphenated. Sometimes it can be two words or hyphenated, or one word or hyphenated, e.g. ‘on-line’ and ‘online’, ‘e-mail’ and ‘email’.
Whether it’s hyphenated or not can also depend on the word’s function in the sentence, e.g. lunch-time and lunchtime.
Then there’s the scenario where it’s simply one word or two, requiring no hyphen – dinner time or dinnertime.
If the proofreader doesn’t have a style guide from the author/publisher to work from, then she ought to check first of all if the author’s spelling of that word throughout the text is consistent, and secondly she should consider the author’s attitude to hyphenation as a whole throughout the work.
Punctuation – she doesn’t liberally pepper your work with commas, or other punctuation marks. Instead she amends them only when it’s necessary for the text to make sense.
– She remains true to the author’s style. If it’s a chatty, informal journal-type book, the proofreader doesn’t necessarily amend prepositions placed at the end of sentences, just to make the text grammatically correct, as this could make it stylistically wrong. Likewise if the novel is written in the first person, where the author’s voice should be heard in a particular dialect, the proofreader shouldn’t necessarily change words like ‘never’ to ‘did not’.
– Great communication skills are a prerequisite. If in doubt, she should query the item in question with the author, but never guess, as this could change the author’s meaning.
– She must have the ability to spot words used in the wrong context, such as ‘clamoured’ and ‘clambered’, ‘poured’ and ‘pored’, ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, ‘all together’ and ‘altogether’.
– Humility must play a part. No one knows everything. The best proofreaders have a good dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary or similar) and an equally good grammar reference book to hand, e.g. the proofreaders’ bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, and they’re not afraid to use them!
– She enjoys her work and derives satisfaction from identifying mistakes. Often she will spot errors in newspapers, TV subtitles, supermarket billboards and restaurant menus. It’s very difficult to switch off, you know!
– Oodles of patience is a must. Proofreading is a painstaking business, as we pore over every word written. There’s no racing ahead to find out what happens next, no skipping the dull bits(!), we examine every single word – twice, as most proofreaders read through the entire text at least twice.
– The best proofreaders will take their time. Although it takes a little longer, printing off your work, marking up the errors, and then transferring the changes to their computer means more errors are captured. Reading through your work only online means mistakes can be missed. As an author, I know the value of printing off my novel and reading it through on paper. Errors seem to jump off the page!
This is not an exhaustive list, but instead should give you a flavour of the qualities a professional proofreader should possess. We have many more attributes: juggling, fire-eating – kidding!
However, bear in mind a proofreader is there to check your final version, (not your first or second draft) and you as an author will benefit most if you realise this. If you require assistance before your final draft, it’s an editor you need, not a proofreader.
Hi, I’m Susan Buchanan. Welcome to Perfect Prose Services.
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