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When To Italicize – The Rules You Need To Know


English has a lot of grammatical rules to keep in mind. From the usage of commas to capitalization, knowing how to write properly is an important skill to hone for those in school and beyond. Whether you are writing research papers or formal letters, you’ll come across instances of italicization. Knowing when to italicize is an important skill to master.

Let’s take a look at how italics came to exist and when to italicize. With this guide, you’ll soon be an italics pro!

Laptop keyboard and typewriter keyboard
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The History Behind Italics

Italics is when a typeface is slanted to the right. Like this!

Italics are used to distinguish words from other parts of the text and draw attention. Like underlining, it can create emphasis; therefore, you wouldn’t want to both underline and italicize the same word. Yet, underlining and italicizing may often be used interchangeably.

Underlining was the precursor to italicizing. Once word processors and printers became more sophisticated to handle italics, it has become a popular alternative to underlining.

When To Italicize

With this being said, using italics isn’t always a choice of personal preference. There are rules and guidelines to follow to know when to italicize. Let’s take a look at some of the rules!

7 Rules For Italics

1. Emphasis

Want a word or phrase to stand out in a block of text? Try writing in italics. Example: I went to grab pizza with friends today. It was so delicious that I ate an entire pie. (Notice how you read the word “so” with more emphasis than the rest of the words in that statement).

2. Titles Of Work

The titles of works should be italicized (or underlined). Examples include:

  • Books – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Newspapers – The Los Angeles Times
  • Movies – The Dark Knight
  • Magazines – People
  • Plays – A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Works of Art – Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas
  • TV/radio programs – Friends
  • CDs/albums – Drake’s Views

3. Articles

Based on the above, you may be questioning, “Are articles italicized?” Articles are shorter forms of work. As such, they are put into quotation marks rather than italicized. For example, you could write something like: In his article “A Mystery Explained” for The New York Times, the author exposed the details of the crime.

4. Foreign Words

If you’re writing in one language but you want to introduce a word in another language, you may consider italicizing it. For example, “The word for war in Spanish is guerra.”

5. Names Of Trains, Ships, Spaceships

Words that are names of transportation vehicles (with the exception of cars) are italicized. For example, the space shuttle Challenger is in italics.

6. Words As Reproduced Sounds

If you want to write out the way something sounds, then you can leverage italics. To depict, “The bees went bzzz in my ear.” This doesn’t mean that you would write verbs that are sounds in italics. (i.e., “There was a loud thud.”)

7. Words As Words

When you are writing a word to use it as a word for reference, then you can put it in italics. For example, “He defined close in context of the situation as being within 6 feet of each other.”

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Examples For When To Use Italics

There are various writing formats that have slightly different rules. When you’re writing a scholarly paper, you may be advised to write in MLA format or APA format.

The MLA format may allow for interchangeability between italics and underlines. In the APA format, these are some examples of when to use and when not to use italics — and they aren’t always in line with the examples above. In APA format, for example, you should not use italics just for emphasis.

So before writing any scholarly paper, it’s useful to double check the rules for italics according to the specific guidelines.

Use Italics

  • First introduction to a new term – i.e., “Communism is defined as, ‘ a form of government…’”
  • Titles of book and web pages – i.e., “Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson”
  • English letters used as math symbols – i.e., “Solve for the variable x.”
  • Anchors of scale – i.e., “Rate your experience on a scale of 1 (extremely dissatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied)”
  • First use of words in a different language – i.e., “She was the crème de la crème.”

Do Not Use Italics

  • For the title of book series – i.e., “the Dan Brown series”
  • Punctuation around italics – i.e., “(extremely dissatisfied)”
  • Words from foreign languages that are in the dictionary of the language you are writing – i.e., “per se”

Things To Remember

This list of rules and exceptions can feel overwhelming. And there’s still more to learn and remember on top of the points above! Keep in mind:

  • Don’t italicize the titles of songs, chapters in books, or poems. Instead, use quotations. For example, you could write: On the Drake album Views, I really like the song “Fire & Desire.”
  • Don’t italicize religious texts – i.e., the Torah or the Koran. Instead, these are capitalized.
  • Don’t underline and italicize together like this. (That sure is painful to read!)

Although there is a lot to remember when it comes to what to italicize, the good news is that you can always research whether or not something should be italicized online or refer back to this list!

Italics Or Not? That Is The Question

As a student, it’s important to fine tune your grammar skills now so that when you graduate and enter the workforce, you can produce exemplary work every time!

As mentioned, when writing research papers or any other academic paper, your professor will share what standards they want you to abide by. Whether it’s MLA or APA formats, you can look up the rules for when to italicize before and during the writing process.

Then, when you edit, be sure to check all your usages of underlines, italics, and quotation marks to ensure they are implemented correctly!