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Rules for Italicization in Written English

Similar to punctuation, italicization is a convention of writing that helps writers and readers more easily read and understand writing. There are five rules for using the typographical technique of italics in written American English:

  1. Identify titles of major works
  2. Emphasize words and phrases
  3. Identify letters and words used as words
  4. Identify linguistic examples
  5. Identify foreign words and phrases

Titles of Major Works

Use italics with the titles of major works. Major works include books; magazines, newspapers, journals, and other periodicals; online newspapers, websites, and blogs; music albums and long musical pieces; full-length plays; long poems; television and radio shows; movies and films; artworks; video games; famous speeches; and pamphlets. For example:

  • Have you read the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?
  • My grandparents subscribe to The New York Times.
  • My favorite Everclear album has always been So Much for the Afterglow.
  • The Crucible is a famous play by Arthur Miller.
  • Beowulf is a long poem written in Old English.
  • That ’70s Show is one of my favorite television programs.
  • My favorite Picasso painting is The Old Guitarist.
  • Wikipedia is a popular website for all sorts of information.

Do not use italicization with the titles of religious texts such as the Bible, Koran, Torah, Talmud, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads.

Do not use italicization with the titles of minor works and parts of whole including short stories; magazine, newspaper, journal, and other periodical articles; short poems; essays; songs; one-act plays; speeches, lectures, and sermons; chapters; short films; and television and radio show episodes. For the use of quotation marks with the titles of minor works and parts of wholes, please see Punctuation Rules for Quotation Marks in Written English.

Emphasis

Use italicization to emphasize words and phrases. For example:

  • Do not use paperclips on the term paper.
  • Your brother named your niece Bootsy?!
  • Uncle Bob won the lottery?!

Do not overuse italicization as too many italicized words and phrases become tedious as opposed to emphasized. Do not use quotations marks to indicate emphasis.

Letters and Words as Words

Use italicization to identify letters and words used as words. For example:

  • Consider using synonyms to avoid starting every sentence in your essay with the.
  • The word complement  with an e is not the same as the word compliment with an i.
  • The preposition in this sentence is in.

Linguistic Examples

Use italicization to identify linguistic examples. For example:

  • The words the, a, and an are the three articles of the English language.
  • In the prepositional phrase to the movies, the noun phrase the movies functions as the prepositional complement of the preposition to.
  • The object pronoun me performs a subject function in the clause My brother and me went to the mall yesterday.

Foreign words and phrases

Use italicization to identify foreign words and phrases. For example:

  • The U-Bahn is a major railroad system in Germany.
  • El encierro, or running of the bulls, is a Spanish tradition.
  • The German zeitgeist has more subtle meanings in German than in English.

Do not use italicization with English words of foreign origin.

  • Enchiladas and tacos are my favorite Mexican foods.
  • My boss has quite the laissez-faire attitude.
  • My favorite genre of literature is fantasy.

Italicization is a convention of written language similar to punctuation marks. Italicization performs five functions in written English: identify titles of major works, emphasize words and phrases, identify letters and words used as words, identify linguistic examples, and identify foreign words and phrases.

References

Faigley, Lester. 2003. The Brief Penguin Handbook. New York: Pearson Longman.
Gibaldi, Joseph. 2003. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

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