To Italicize or Not Italicize…
That is the question, no? Stealing a line from the Bard is fitting for this topic. Like with any aspect of grammar, there are rules about italicizing. Some of these rules can be broken, while some cannot. However, you must know the rules to know how to break them; otherwise, your writing ends up looking sloppy.
I will also note that rules vary based on what you are writing. An academic paper will be held to different standards than a business report, a memo, or a novel would be. Please consider your audience when writing.
- Titles – The title of any published work is always italicized. This means movies, books, magazines, CD and album titles, television shows, even works of art like sculptures or paintings. However, short story titles, individual magazine articles, songs, and television show episodes are not italicized but are placed within quotation marks. Examples: Top Gun (movie), 1984 (book), Seinfield (television series), The Persistence of Memory (painting by Salvador Dali).
- Foreign Words – Any word not yet familiar to the average reader or in a standard English dictionary. Example: The man kept saying chispas under his breath.
- Words as Words or Letters as Letters – This is when you refer to a letter or word as that letter or word. Example: You don’t need to italicize the word lavender. Don’t forget to dot your i’s.
- Sound Effects – If you write a sound effect, it should be italicized. Example: Knock, knock, the man rapped against the door.
Outside of the list of words above, italicizing is typically done for emphasis. However, this should be done sparingly (notice the use of italics). If you italicize too many things, the effect is lost, and the reader will not be able to tell what you are trying to emphasize.
You may want to italicize a large block of text to set apart something that happened in the past, in a different scene, or a character’s internal thoughts. Please reconsider this. It is difficult for some to read large blocks of italicized text and takes away from the enjoyment of your writing. There are other ways to create the effect you are going for without italicizing.
Instead, examine the structure of the sentence or paragraph you are writing to provide the emphasis. Italics are like ellipses in a novel. They are effective when used correctly, but they can totally throw the reader out of the story if over-done.
If you find yourself with your fingers floating over that control key or hovering the mouse button over the italics box, really think about it first. Do you need to italicize that word? Will it make that big of a difference? Can you frame the sentence or paragraph any other way?
As they say about cutting material (“Measure twice and cut once”), a good rule for writers is “Think twice and italicize once.
If you are unsure of whether you should italicize something, refer back to this article or find grammar books or blogs. A writer can never have too many.
M L Gammella got her feet wet writing derivative fiction before she took the jump into original. When she isn’t working her day job, she dabbles in several flash fiction contests through the week and is writing her first full-length paranormal suspense novel. She lives in northeastern Ohio with her husband and three pets. You can follow her on twitter @MLGammella