Italics And When Not To Use Them

Some writers, in particular, novelists, become “italics happy.” Once they’ve discovered the slanty writing, it’s as if they’ve struck it rich. More accurately, they have stumbled on fools gold. Using italics in fiction or non-fiction is much more specialized and a lot rarer — or should be — than many know.

Don’t get me wrong. Italics do have their purposes. Here are their major legitimate uses.

First, italicize a foreign word or phrase used in isolation. If an expression comes up frequently, only its first use needs to be italicized.

In my fantasy series, The Lore Of Efrathah, for instance, I use a number of “foreign” words (actually words of an imaginary language), and some are repeated throughout. Consequently, on their introduction, I put the words in italics, but thereafter they appear in regular roman type. Here’s an example from Book 1, Hunted, with a little extra so you can see in context what the word means:

Alán!” Eljosh cried. “Bring him alán!”

Those close to Mikkán moved back to make room for a light-haired council member rushing forward. From a pouch at his side, he yanked out a pinch of dried leaves, then grasped Mikkán’s forearm and crushed the leaves into a powder he sprinkled over the burn.

A second legitimate use of italics, more common in non-fiction, is to set off a word used as a word rather than as that which it means.

For example, someone may ask, “Do we capitalize president?”

In such an instance, the writer is referring to the word “president,” and not the person which such a word represents. The proper way to punctuate that sentence would be to italicize president, as I did here because I too was using the word as a word.

A similar use of italics exists for individual letters used as letters, with the exception of letters used for grades. Here’s an example:

    I often mistakenly type b when I mean to type p.

A fourth use of italics is for titles of “free standing” works such as books, magazines, movies, the name of a TV series, plays, and so forth. Consequently,

    I read an article in Time magazine entitled “Go For The Gold.”

Other titles that are set in italics are art works, formally titled art exhibitions, and photographs. Specific names of ships, planes, and trains (but not names of their makes, classes, or models) are also italicized.

One last legitimate use of italics in general writing (there are others in specialty publications such as scientific journals when writing about genes or genuses): Italics may be used sparingly for emphasis. From Chicago Manual Of Style:

Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis and never an entire passage (7.49, 15th edition).

Along this line, in non-fiction a key term may be italicized on its first occurrence to draw attention to itself. From that point on, it would be set in roman type.

Fiction writers may think I’ve left off one of the most significant uses of italics: when writing interior monologue. Not so. I haven’t left it off because interior monologue, or what Chicago terms “unspoken discourse” (which would include silent prayer) does not require italics. Instead, quotation marks are used, or no identifying punctuation at all.

Here’s another example from Hunted:

Jonathan crossed to the alcove. “I know you must be disappointed.”

Without looking up, Jim nodded. “Disappointed” was the G-rated version of what he was feeling, but could anyone blame him for a twinge of despair? He might never see his parents again, might not reconnect with his sister or teach his hero-worshiping nephews, Matt and Allen, his signature crossover dribble and stop-on-a-dime jump shot.

There you have it. Italics ought to be rare nuggets, not flashy baubles too common to do any good. Authors, use them sparingly.

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If this article was helpful, you might also be interested in “Quotation Marks And Where They Belong.”

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Italics And When Not To Use Them

  1. I strenuously disagree with the deprecation of italics for “unspoken discourse.” If a story can get by without them, it probably should … but there are some common cases where forbidding that use of italics either requires far worse typographical tricks or makes more expressive writing impossible.

    Some examples:
    Lois McMaster Bujold, in a post to the mailing list nominally devoted to discussing her work in a thread partly about italics and other punctuation, described—among other things—how she uses italics in her tight-third-person-POV prose:

    In my tight-third, passages in italics are always direct quotes of thought. (Unless a word or phrase is italicized for special emphasis.) The next distance out is paraphrased thought/perception, and the next distance out from that is filtered (through the current viewpoint character) narrative. Each of these narrative distances picks up its skirts and runs a little faster, from real-time through narrative summary.

    Without italics, she’d have to either drop the innermost “narrative distance” from her arsenal entirely, add “he thought” tags all over (if she switched to quotation marks, as you recommended), or pick some unusual punctuation mark to replace the (standard) italics.

    In speculative fiction that includes such “unspoken” communication methods as telepathy (e.g. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series) or highly expressive body language (Diane Duane’s Book of Night With Moon and To Visit the Queen, whose point-of-view protagonists are cats), or in any fiction where quoted thoughts, prayer, or conversation in a foreign language are very common, again, italics are basically standard. Elsewhere in the thread from which I quoted Bujold above, someone mentioned that Jack Chalker in one series “used four or five different types of marks to distinguish different varieties of telepathy,” and Bujold herself used tildes in Curse of Chalion to mark when conversations drifted into Roknari, one of the Ibran Peninsula’s three or four languages, but such tricks are grating until the reader gets used to them, and while the vast majority of authors including such elements use italics for such things, the rest all use different marks. It would be one thing to say, “Don’t use italics; delimit the telepathy/Parseltongue/Roknari/whatever with such-and-such marks, like everyone else.” But when italics are what most authors use, and there’s no consensus on what to replace them with that isn’t already being used, it’s another matter entirely to proscribe the standard usage, let alone prohibit it without suggesting a viable alternative (which quotation marks, plus descriptive text clarifying which of the several sorts of “discourse” quotation marks now delimit is meant this time, are not).

    Style manuals are not infallible; on this point the Chicago Manual of Style is attempting to prescribe “correct” or “better” usage rather than describe what is actually standard practice. Remember the famous rebuttal of Strunk’s rule, often (apparently wrongly) attributed to Churchill: This is something “up with which I will not put.”

  2. Great info.

    Here’s my question:
    Jonathan crossed to the alcove. “I know you must be disappointed.”

    Without looking up, Jim nodded. “Disappointed” was the G-rated version of what he was feeling, but could anyone blame him for a twinge of despair? “I’ll never see my parents again,” he thought. “I probably won’t reconnect with my sisters or teach my nephews how to do my crossover dribble or jump shot.”

    OR

    Jonathan crossed to the alcove. “I know you must be disappointed.”

    Without looking up, Jim nodded. “Disappointed” was the G-rated version of what he was feeling, but could anyone blame him for a twinge of despair? I’ll never see my parents again. I probably won’t reconnect with my sisters or teach my nephews how to do my crossover dribble or jump shot.

    This is when I see italics used for internal monologue. It’s when a third person narrator goes into direct internal speech to himself. Do you go with quotes and “he thought” or italics?

  3. Thanks for the question, Sally. I don’t go with italics, quotation marks, or thought tags. As far as I’m concerned there is never a time when a third person narrator needs to switch to first person. You’re rewrite added no new information, no insight into the character, no deepening of his point of view. In other words, there is nothing that first person can do that close third can’t do also.

    But that’s me. If someone else felt the switch to first was necessary, they have the option of using the quotation marks or nothing.

    I don’t see why we need thought tags. I read a good Writer’s Digest article that showed how to introduce thought with a simple action that let’s readers know the thoughts that follow belong to the POV character.

    I suppose, though, if a writer switches from third to first person, the thought tag might make the transition smoother.

    I agree with you that many writers were using italics as you mentioned. I’m wondering if Chicago, 14th edition had that as an option. In the 15th edition it clearly takes the position that italics are not for this purpose. The more recent 16th edition didn’t change that.

    I’ve seen italics used less frequently for internal monologue, but it still comes up in my editing, which is why I thought it might be a good topic to address.

    Becky

  4. Jonathan, I don’t know what was part of Chicago‘s thinking in stating that quotation marks or no marks are to be used for unspoken discourse.

    Clearly a writer like Lois McMaster Bujold has a long and established style, so I don’t envision an editor telling her she has to change because Chicago says so. A friend of mine published her debut novel this year and there were big sections in italics, suggested by her editor to fit the unique situation of her speculative novel.

    So, clearly you’re right that these “rules” aren’t hard and fast. However, novelists who wish to master the craft would do well to start with what the style books say — and Chicago seems to be the one most editors favor for fiction.

    If something is peculiar to a particular story that requires a break from the style book guideline, and the author pulls it off, I don’t see any editor worth his salt shaking a finger and saying, Naughty, naughty. You used too many italics, so we’ll have to reject this one.

    But I also think writers should realize that style is in flux because our language is living. Consequently what we read in a book written ten, fifteen years ago might be handled differently today. It is a good thing to know the current standard style guidelines and to follow them until we’re good enough to depart from them. :-D

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan.

    Becky

  5. I tend to agree with Jonathan on the use of italics for thoughts. I’ve read several books that didn’t use this practice (which I agree appears to be standard across the gamut of publishers, style manual or not), and the result is a real confusion for the reader on who’s thoughts are being reported. First, you have a switch between third person and first person, which can be jarring without a stylistic device; then, if you have mulitple points of view in the book, it can become confusing just who is thinking without tags like “he thought” (which becomes annoying).

  6. I agree completely that the rules aren’t hard and fast (I have a favorite passage from a favorite novel to the effect that one must learn the rules in order to flout them from knowledge rather than ignorance). But, like I said, based on what I’ve read recently (which admittedly isn’t all that much) is that italics are the standard punctuation for “unspoken discourse” and similar situations; instead of describing the standard style, on this point (from your summary above—I’ve never had to consult this style manual myself, since nearly all my school papers were supposed to follow the MLA format) the Chicago Manual is prescribing a change in that standard.

    (In a comment above, you said this wasn’t changed from the 15th to the 16th edition; my quick Web searching led me to the initial impression that it was new in the 16th edition, and that the 15th edition prescribed italics for “unspoken discourse”.)

    And while I sympathize with their motivation for this change, as italics indeed denote too many categories of meaning, the substitute punctuation (quotation marks) that the Chicago editors designate is not a satisfactory replacement, as double-quotes are almost as overused as italics. If they’d found some usually-unused mark and said to use it instead of italics, I could acquiesce to that, but because they specify quotation marks, for a writer whose instinct is to use italics for thoughts heavily, following this recommendation would reduce the clarity and expressiveness of her prose.

    To show how major this change would be, I have a couple of example changes that they could make, but almost certainly won’t because they (like this one) fly in the face of standard usage: First, they could ban double quotation marks for dialogue and actual quotations; they would remain for “scare quotes” and other similar (single-phrase) uses, but for actual quotations and dialogue, they would be replaced by single quotes—which are already used for quotations inside other quotations. This would make expressing even moderately complicated ideas clearly much more difficult. Second, they could change paragraph formatting to get rid of the initial indentation, instead marking the divisions between adjacent paragraphs by adding extra vertical space between them. This wouldn’t reduce the writer’s expressive power, but it would be jarring for readers, making it harder for them to become immersed, simply because it’s so different from standard practice.

    As an aside, for what it’s worth: When I’ve seen posts recommending that beginning writers learn the standard conventions of style and grammar, they’ve usually recommended Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or less commonly some other similar book; this is the first I’ve seen that even cites an academic style manual.

  7. simon k.mureu

    HEY….THAT IS A GOOD LEARNING FROM YOU

  8. Thanks, Simon. I’m glad you found it helpful.

    Becky

  9. Jonathan, I use the 15th edition of Chicago. When the latest edition came out, they posted changes on their web site. I went over those and even wrote a few articles for this blog regarding the differences. All that to say, this non-use of italics for unspoken discourse is not one of the changes.

    A few years ago there was quite a stir among writers when an editor (maybe two) wrote about this very thing. Lots of debate ensued. Since I’d bought into what I read in the Writer’s Digest article I mentioned in my response to Sally, I was glad to see the new standard receiving more “press time.” I’m one of those readers that really does not like reading italicized writing. It pulls me out of the story and makes me look at the font. It reminds me that I’m reading fiction, that someone formatted the page. Obviously italics doesn’t affect everyone that way.

    I’ll also say, I doubt that Chicago made a change that flies in the face of standard use. If you check recent releases in Borders, I suggest you won’t find many with passages of italics.

    And the bottom line for publication is, the editor gets the last say on this. Each house has its own style guide, so they may well retain italics for unspoken discourse. The writer, however, would do well not to assume this, but instead to write to the standard for fiction writers.

    You’re right, too, Jonathan, that most writing books recommend something basic like Strunk and White. To be honest, it’s tedious looking things up in a book like Chicago. What I thought would be a fairly straightforward post took much longer to write because I had to dig out the various possible uses of italics for fiction writers. They don’t come in a nice, neat section. Consequently, I wouldn’t say I’m recommending that writers run out and buy Chicago unless they have no other way of acquainting themselves with the current standard uses. Hopefully this blog can help with that.

    Again, thanks for your input, Jonathan.

    Becky

  10. Michelle, I agree that the absence of italics puts a greater burden on the writer to be clear, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m of the school that believes words should convey meanings. Consequently, we shouldn’t need a question mark and two exclamation points at the end of a sentence to convey excited confusion. (And yes, I’ve seen that in a book published by a traditional Christian publisher). The words alone should be able to do the job.

    Style clues such as italics and excessive punctuation, can help the reader, but I don’t think they are necessary — with exceptions — if the writer does his job.

    But ultimately, as I pointed out to Jonathan, writers don’t get to choose the style for our books. A publisher will dictate what style guide the editor follows, so it seems wise to me for writers to start out following the standard. If they want to discuss changes with their editor, I don’t see that as a problem either. But to take a “Lone Ranger” approach and expect a publisher to abandon their preferred style in favor of the writer’s preference seems risky at best. Hence, these writer tips to let others know what the standards are.

    Thanks for taking part in the discussion, Michelle.

    Becky

  11. You’re welcome Becky, and thanks for the response. I honestly haven’t seen many book not use italics for thoughts, specifically when the author is writing in third person and switches to first person for thougths (as opposed to continuing in third person to express the character’s inner monologue). That’s not to say this practice is not a trend on the upswing or that I’m an authority on the subject, just that I haven’t seen much anecdotal evidence.

    Of course, as you say, writers must submit to editor or publishing house perogative. In the same way that producers, directors, and established writers in the buisness dictate how a screenplay should be formatted, so publishers have the final say on how their books are presented. If an author has a problem with that, he or she should find a different publisher.

    One final word on the subject: I agree writers should choose their words carefully, but to say words alone should convey the story (sans any kind of formatting whatsoever) seems incredibly simplistic. If words alone convey the story, why separate the story into paragraphs or chapters? A solid wall of even the best written text is still just that: a solid wall, which is incredibly difficult to read. We separate words into sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters, because it helps the reader better understand the content in a way the author desires. Italics, bolding, and punctuation can all certainly be misued (I too cringe at double exclamation marks), but the potential for abuse is not necessarily a reason for complete abadonment of a style. Quotation marks tell us a character is speaking, not because it’s natural, but because readers expect to see this aid when reading. If italics are not used to indicate thoughts, I believe some other form will be needed to help readers understand what’s going on. Going from third to first person willy nilly can be just as jarring as badly utilized italics.

  12. Eve

    If you need a topic idea, I vote on the use of adverbs and adjectives in writing. I recently read that a writer should almost never use -ly adverbs in writing.

    I just finished reading an excellent novel (The Ale Boy’s Feast) in which are a fair number of -ly adverbs…and it seemed to work.

    Whassup with that?

  13. I don’t think I’ve tackled that one yet, Eve. Good suggestion.

    Becky

  14. Pingback: Quotation Marks And Where They Belong | Rewrite, Reword, Rework

  15. Hi Rebecca–

    The discussion on italics was very helpful. I have a question that deals with how one formats a novel for an editor or publisher when the novel contains selections from a journal that the main character has found amidst, say, the rubble of a city. When the character begins to read a selection, should the words/paragraphs be indented in single spacing, or should the margins and paragraphing stay the same but the words placed into italics? And no matter how one sets it up for the editor and publisher for review, how are such selections likely to appear in the finished, printed, book? I guess I’m wondering what absolutism might exist for italics in such a case.

    Thank you.

  16. Hi, Regina, thanks for your question.

    I went back to Chicago Manual of Style to be sure I had this right. The short answer is that the publisher will format a blockquote as they wish, but when you prepare your manuscript, simply indent and don’t change any other formatting. This means that there are numerous possibilities for how it will appear in the published book–based on the particular publishers’ in house style guidelines. Here’s the long version from Chicago (which, BTW, I’ll put in block quotes and which the template I use here at WordPress will then format ;-) ):

    Block quotations [in your case, the journal entries] are not enclosed in quotation marks and always start a new line. They may be indented or set in smaller type or a different font [which would include italicizing the normal font] from the text; they may have unjustified right-hand margins or less space between lines. These matters are normally decided by the publisher’s designer . . . Authors preparing block quotations should avoid such devices (unless otherwise advised by their publishers) and simply use the indention feature of their word processors. (Chicago, 15th edition, 11.11 – emphasis mine)

    Hope that helps.

    Becky

  17. A bit of a contentious debate for me. I do have italics in my work, in speeches and in parts of the action (where I mean there is a sword fight going on). The thing is, I’m using the italics to show which words/actions are stressed.

    Like in everyday speech, you stress a particular word. I’m not presenting the dialogue for you to read, I’m actually trying to present the dialogue as the character is speaking. Now I can’t go around saying “he stressed the words X, Y, and Z for added force”

    Okay I’m looking at toning it down, but when I’m going for, “the sword *struck* his foe’s shoulder,” “*cleaving* his arm clean off,” “*rammed* his face into the ground, *rendering* him unconscious. Another scene I’ve been critiqued on, the protagonist is telling someone off for his misdeeds – and is forcing particular words out, *striking* the foe with them. Tell me a better, quicker way to do that without the simplification.

    Other than that, I italicise internal thoughts, when a character is *screaming* (usually with exclaimation marks)

    I consider myself anti-establishment: I speak the dialogue I write, I want my reader to imagine this in their mind like its been “acted” out on a screen. When somebody screams and its not italicised, to me its like the “he screamed” was an afterhtought.

  18. Thanks for your comment, TM.

    To me this isn’t actually a debate. I’m passing along the guidelines from the style manual that’s considered the primer authority for fiction. As I noted in an earlier comment, publishers still get to decide if they will follow it or if they will strike out on their own in any particular instance. Obviously some still do when it comes to italics.

    However, for those preparing their manuscripts to submit for publication or for agent representation, I encourage you to follow Chicago Manual of Style.

    Regarding your idea that the italics help readers know how to read what you’ve written, most writing instructors disagree. They say that the words themselves, not the punctuation (including italics) should carry the meaning. And in the examples you gave, I think they do. You’ve chosen strong verbs that carry the impact and don’t need support.

    You also said

    Another scene I’ve been critiqued on, the protagonist is telling someone off for his misdeeds – and is forcing particular words out, *striking* the foe with them. Tell me a better, quicker way to do that without the simplification.

    The latest, sort of faddish approach to this is to use one word sentences. I’m not a fan of that approach because it again seems to rely on punctuation to support the meaning of the words. How about a simple bit of prose: “He punctuated each word with a blow to my ribs.”

    Becky

  19. Anybody know this one: do you use italics when the main character is listening to a recorded message or do you use quotations or both?

  20. Andrew, from what I know of Chicago Manual of Style, I’d say quotation marks. I’d also venture to say, you can be sure it’s wrong if you use both. ;-)

    Becky

  21. Hey thanks for your expertise!

  22. I read this post about a week ago, having received some complaints from folks in my writing group about my use of italics for unspoken discourse. Today I happened to check out the Amazon excerpt of A Wrinkle in Time, and I discovered that Madeleine L’Engle (or her editor) used em dashes for Meg’s thoughts. I think it works well.

    But then, googling to get back here, I found out that Randy Ingermanson uses italics.

    Food for (ahem) thought, I guess. Thanks for a useful post!

  23. Doug, the thing is, these rules change over time, plus different publishing companies hold to their own standards long after the accepted “bible” of style has changed, so looking at how previous writers have done it is not going to show us too much in regard to how we should write today.

    The thing that convinced me to go away from italics for internal discourse was the fact that I’m one who doesn’t like to read a lot of passages in italics.

    But I just finished a novel that used italics primarily as a device to show when a character’s thoughts contrasted to his words. They were always short–mostly fragments. And they were nearly invisible. I don’t know what made me think about their use towards the end of the book, but at the time I shrugged and kept on reading. In other words, they didn’t distract or call attention to themselves. They didn’t gloss over a change in tense and person as so many italicized internal discourses do.

    It’s the tried and true statement about fiction–if it works, it’s OK to use it. Such a pragmatic thing, writing. ;-)

    Becky

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