What are they?
Italics, sometimes called italic type, are characters that are slightly slanted to the right. Normal text is referred to as Roman or normal text.
- This sentence is in Roman or normal text.
- This sentence is in italics.
When to use
Italics do not have any hard-and-fast grammar rules that apply to all the major standard style guides. Whenever you are writing a piece, consult the specific style guide that applies to ensure the proper use of italics, as each style guide may have a slightly different preference or rule. There are four main style guides that apply in a variety of professional writing situations:
- The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual
- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
- Chicago Manual of Style of Style
In addition to these, there are various style guides available on the internet that are informal and apply to more modern conceptions of writing – such as guidelines for writing content for the web or writing blogs and other forms of writing distributed solely through the internet. While these guides do not enjoy the official status of those listed above, they can help you determine the appropriate use of italics. The situations below provide some situations where italics are considered acceptable or are preferred. One important thing to note is that the AP (Associated Press) style does not require the use of italics.
Emphasis or contrast
One of the most common usages of italics is to place an emphasis on a word or group of words to show either emphasis or contrast. The use of italics lets your readers know you are drawing attention to that portion of text. You might think of it as stressing a particular word when you are speaking. Since you cannot inflect your tone of voice into written content, italics provide a way to show inflection by making the words appear differently. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: Greg ate three helpings of the lasagna. (The use of italics on the word “three” provides emphasis.)
Example 2: Greg ate not one, but three helpings of the lasagna. (The use of italics shows contrast.)
Italics are often used to note titles of complete works, such as books, films, plays, long poems, operas, sculptures, paintings and musical albums or compilations. Newspaper and magazine titles are italicized as well. Consider the following examples:
Example 3: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an excellent read. (The title of the book is in italics.)
Example 4: The only newspaper she typically reads is The Christian Science Monitor. (The title of the newspaper is in italics.)
Italics are often used to denote vehicles, such as airplanes, missiles, satellites, ships or spacecraft. If a modifier or article (an, an, the) precedes the name of the vehicle, neither is italicized. Below are a few examples:
- the Challenger (spacecraft)
- the U.S.S Cole (ship)
- the Titanic
- the Cruise missile
Letters of the alphabet
When you are referring to letters of the alphabet as such, it is common to use italics to denote the letter. For example:
Example 5: The x is often used to fill in boxes that require check marks on forms.
Words as words
Much like letters of the alphabet, when words are referred to within a sentence as words (versus functioning as words that serve to define the context of the sentence), the words are often italicized to denote the reference. See the below example:
Example 6: The word today is often unnecessary when you are writing in the present tense, as it is implied.
When you use a word that is not part of the English language, even if it is commonly used, use italics to show that the word is foreign. For example:
Example 7: The dress she wore to the Christmas party is a serious fashion faux pas.
Some areas of discipline require or use italics within specific references. Legal references in the discipline of law and International Code of Zoological Nomenclature references to the Latin names of genus and species are both examples of disciplines that use italics in a specific way. Consider the following examples:
Example 8: Roe v. Wade is a controversial case that was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court. (Note that only the references to the parties in the case are italicized. The “v.” between them is in normal text.)
Example 9: Homo sapiens is often the biologically preferred way to refer to the human species.
Italics are useful in dialogue to show emphasis (see section above) or to show that the words are thoughts. This is especially useful in fiction writing. Consider the below example:
Example 10: This is not happening again, Justin thought to himself.
Situations with no italics
While italics are useful and some situations require them, as dictated by applicable style guides or your personal preferences when no specific rule applies, there are some situations that are exceptions to the rule. Holy books, such as the Holy Bible or the Koran, are not put into italics. Similarly, titles of songs are not capitalized. The album on which they appear is italicized, and the song title is usually placed within quotations.
Writing for the web presents an interesting debate over the use of italics. There is no right or wrong way to approach the use of italics for written content for the internet. However, italics do not generally display as well on pages on the web as they do in an electronic document. There is no official style guide to follow when it comes to italics and the web, but the use of quotation marks instead of italics generally displays better. Make sure to keep this in mind if what you are writing is intended for display on the internet. In addition, while some people prefer to use underlining in place of some italics, this does not transfer well to the web. An underlined word or phrase on a website makes your readers think that a link is attached to them, so avoid underlining as a replacement for italics when writing web content.
Overuse and consistency
Italics are useful when used correctly, but when you overuse them to show emphasis or contrast, they lose their effectiveness. With this in mind, make sure to carefully choose when to use italics in this situation. Likewise, since there is often no across-the-board rule that applies under all style guides, if you choose to use italics in one situation, make sure you stay consistent within the same piece of written content.