When to Use Italics in Your Writing

When to Use Italics in Your Writing

Of all the typographic styles, italicisation may look the most dynamic. Perhaps it’s the way the words slant to the right, as if striding confidently to a business meeting. Or perhaps we’re overthinking this. The point is that italics are a useful, versatile part of writing. But when should you use them?

Key occasions for using italics include:

  • To emphasise something.
  • For titles of standalone works, such as books and films.
  • For vehicle names, such as ships.
  • To show that a word is borrowed from another language.
  • For the Latin ‘scientific’ names of plant and animal species.

Let’s take a look at each of these to see how they work in practice.

Italics for Emphasis

Like bold fonts or underlining, italics are often used for emphasis. This means we can use italics to stress or draw attention to a particular word or phrase:

Italicisation is the best way to emphasise something.

Here, italicising best shows that we feel strongly about italics.

Generally, italics are the standard form of emphasis in academic writing. This is because they look more formal than bold formatting. However, always check your style guide if your university or employer has one, since some organisations have different rules about emphasising text.

Italics in Place of Quote Marks

It would be unusual to italicise a full quote rather than placing it in inverted commas. However, some people do use italics to set single words apart in the same way you might with quote marks. For example:

Quote Marks: The word ‘italic’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘Italy’.

Italics: The word italic comes from a Greek word meaning Italy.

As with emphasis, if you are using a style guide, you may want to check whether it allows this. Otherwise, though, italics can be helpful if using too many quote marks makes your writing look cluttered.

When to Use Italics for Titles

Another common use of italicisation is for titles. Not your own headings – you can italicise these, but that’s a matter of stylistic preference – but the titles of published works, such as books. For instance, if we mentioned a work by Charles Dickens in an essay, we would write it like this:

Queen Victoria read The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841.

By using italics, we set the title text apart from the rest of the sentence.

It’s not just books that you should do this for. Typically, the same applies for any self-contained media product or publication (i.e. something published by itself rather than as part of a collection). This includes the titles of:

  • Books and book-length poems
  • Academic journals (i.e. the journal title itself, not individual article titles)
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Films, radio programs, and TV shows
  • Plays and other stage shows
  • Music albums and other published audio recordings
  • Paintings, statues, and other works of art

Titles of shorter works, by comparison, are often placed in quotation marks. However, the rules for presenting titles do vary between style guides.

Italicising Vehicle Names

You can use italics for the names of individual vehicles, such as a ship or space rocket. For instance, we would italicise the following vehicle names:

The sailors boarded the HMS Belfast in silence.

The Titanic sank during her maiden voyage.

Here, we italicise Belfast and Titanic because they’re the proper names of specific ships. We do not italicise the initials preceding names of ships (e.g. HMS, RMS, USS). In addition, you should only italicise the names of individual vehicles. If you’re writing the name of a brand or make of a vehicle (e.g. Ford Escort or Boeing 747), by comparison, you don’t need italics.

Italicising Non-English Words

Make sure to italicise any non-English words you use in English-language writing. This shows the reader that the word was borrowed from another language. For instance, we could say:

In Germany, this feeling is known as Waldeinsamkeit.

The exact rules for when to italicise foreign words may vary depending on the style guide you check. For instance, most style guides make exceptions for words that are now fairly common in English even if they are still loanwords, so you would not usually need to italicise terms like ‘raison d’être’.

If in doubt, though, you can always check a good dictionary (e.g. the OED or Webster’s). Assuming you can find the word in the dictionary, it should be widely used enough in English to write without italics.

Italicising Species Names

Binomial nomenclature (i.e. the Latin names given to plant and animal species) is usually italicised. For example, we could say:

Nobody wants Amorphophallus titanum growing in their garden.

As above, you should also capitalise the first word (i.e. the genus) in scientific plant and animal names, but not the second term (i.e. the species).

Other Uses for Italics

There are occasions when you may want to use italics not covered above. In fact, italics are useful for most situations where you need to make some part of a text distinct. One example comes from creative writing, where some people use italics to indicate an unspoken thought. For instance, we could use italics to show a character’s inner monologue:

Jeff sat silently in the doctor’s office. It wasn’t his usual doctor, so he was already nervous before the needle appeared.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the doctor. ‘It won’t hurt.’

Easy for you to say, Jeff thought. It’s not you at the sharp end of that thing. But he kept this to himself, instead uttering a meek ‘OK’.

However you use italics, though, there are two main rules to follow:

  1. Try not to use italics for too many different reasons in a single document. For instance, if you are writing something with a lot of titles and foreign words, you may want to find a different way of formatting emphasis.
  2. If you use italicised text for any part of a document, apply it consistently. So, for instance, if you’re using italics for loanwords in one part of an essay, you’ll want to do the same throughout the document.

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