Knowing When To Underline Or Italicize: Your Go-To Guide

Knowing when to underline or italicize can be confusing. But it doesn’t have to be! In this article, we’ll lay out all the basics, plus a few common difficulties that confuse many writers, so you’ll be an expert in no time.


At the end of the article, you’ll get the chance to practice your hand at some sample sentences, so you’ll be sure that you know the ins and outs of using italics and underlines.


Italics Vs Underline: Clarifying The Confusion

In the past (before computers and MLA handbooks), italics and underlines were used to emphasize certain words or titles within the text. It let the reader know what was important, or what was separate from the rest of the sentence. They were both used interchangeably, as long as they were consistent.


Now, with the ability to change formatting with the click of a button, italics are generally used to indicate titles, and only sometimes for emphasis. Meanwhile, underlining is mostly reserved to replace italics in handwritten papers. Manuals and guidebooks, such as the MLA handbook, are now widely used in large institutions or according to the country’s standards, so that specific writing conventions, grammar rules, and formatting styles have become uniform.


With that said, the general rule is that italics are used for titles of books, movies, TV and radio shows, magazines, works of art, and long poems. As mentioned before, underlining is a substitute for italics when writing titles by hand.


Proper formatting in an essay can be confusing for many students:


Titles Of Long Works



Titles that should be italicized are longer works. These include titles of books, movies, TV and radio shows, journals and magazines, and long poems. In the next section, we’ll see how these works differ from titles of shorter works which are put in quotations instead.




  • The novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, was published in 1847 under the pen name of Currer Bell.


  • The movie Home Alone, released in 1990, made a worldwide total of $476,684,675 in box office revenue.


Titles Of Smaller Works




The titles of smaller works are put in “quotations” in order to differentiate them from longer works. These smaller works include titles of chapters, short stories, TV or radio show episodes, articles, and short poems.


In the examples below, note how you can recognize the difference between the shorter works and larger works just by seeing how they are emphasized in the sentence. This makes it impossible to confuse the title of a chapter with the book that it belongs to, or the episode from its TV show.




  • The chapter entitled “The Castaway” in Moby Dick describes the near-death experience of a character named Pip.


  • Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” was originally published in a Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.


  • The pilot episode of Friends, which was released on September 22, 1994, is called “The One Where Monica Gets A Roommate.”


Punctuation In Titles: Common Confusions


Question marks


Confusion can come up when a title includes a question mark or an exclamation mark in the title itself. For example, the book Who Has Seen the Wind? includes a question mark in it.


The way to deal with these titles is to italicize the question mark as well, just as it is above. By doing so, you can differentiate this title from an actual question, such as writing: Have you read Gone With the Wind?


The same idea applies to exclamation marks — for example, the movie Mamma Mia!, which includes an exclamation mark in the title. Note the italicization, and the difference between writing Mamma Mia!, the movie, and writing: I can’t believe that you never watched The Parent Trap


Commas and periods


The confusion of commas and periods when it comes to quotations is a debate between different handbooks and countries. According to the MLA (Modern Language Association) handbook, commas and periods are placed inside of quotation marks.




  • “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” the first episode of Seinfeld, had 15.4 million viewers in America.


  • Among the short stories of James Joyce included in the collection Dubliners are “Araby,” “The Sisters,” and “The Encounter.”


Solidify your new skills by completing practice sentences:


Let’s Practice!


Try your hand at your new skills! Below are five sentences without any italics or quotations. Italicize the longer works and put the shorter works in quotations. If you get stuck, check back in the article, and you’ll be an expert in no time. Be sure to pay attention to tricky commas, periods, and question marks.


  • The Lazy Controller, chapter two of Thinking Fast and Slow, talks about multitasking and its effect on thinking.


  • The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Catherine Perkins Gilman, was originally published in The New England Magazine in January 1892.


  • John Lennon’s album Imagine included favorites such as Gimme Some Truth, How Do You Sleep?, and, of course, Imagine.


  • The premiere episode of Family Matters is called The Mama Who Came To Dinner, and relays the drama of Carl’s mother coming to live with him.


  • The short story Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway was first published in a magazine called Transition, and was only later published in his book Men Without Women.


Why Is Proper Indentation Important?


College essays


No matter what you study in college, most students write a lot of essays during their school years. While some degrees may put more of an emphasis on writing proper essays, most teachers and professors will expect a certain level of basic grammar and formatting knowledge. Before you even step foot into college, you’ll most likely be expected to write an application essay. It’s important to put your best foot forward, and small formatting rules can go a long way in making a good first impression.


Landing your dream job


In addition to college essays, prospective employers and job positions will require and look for basic (or advanced, depending on the position) writing skills. Whether you think your dream job requires writing skills or not, writing is a part of everyday life and work, from emails and text messages, to presentations and reports. Having good writing skills will help you make a good first impression, land your dream job, and do your best work.


Proper writing is an important skill for any job:


Having a successful career


Though different students earn a degree for different reasons, many are hoping to work toward a successful career. In order to do this, the right preparation is key. Preparation may be earning a degree, gaining specific skills, or having the right guidance along the way.


University of the People prepares our students for successful careers by providing program advising, mentorship, and an emphasis on career development. We know that these extra details, much like formatting in an essay, make a big difference for the future success of our students. University of the People is a tuition-free online university that offers degree programs in business administration, computer science, health science, and education.


Wrapping Up


Now you know when to underline or italicize, and much more. To wrap up, italics should be used for the titles of longer works such as movies, books, and TV shows, and underlining for handwritten papers.


In addition, we hope you’ve learned the more tricky rules such as question marks and commas, and that you’ve given some thought to the importance of writing for your future education and success.

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