Italicized (slanted upward to the right) words, letters and figures are not as a common a part of the communicator’s toolkit as other writing devices, but using them correctly will give your piece a polished, professional appearance. If your office adheres to a particular style guide or a style sheet, you should be set; e.g., if you’re using Associated Press style, you’ll just avoid italics altogether.
What if you don’t have a style guide or sheet? You can consult grammar rules like the ones below for general principles about which words should be italicized and in what context.
1. In Composition Titles
Below are the types of works that should have their titles italicized:
- Publications (books, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets)
- Plays, films, radio and television programs
- Entire recordings
- Works of art
- Long poems
- Comic strips
- Software programs
If a punctuation mark is part of the title, it should be italicized. E.g., the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? has a question mark in its title, so that punctuation mark is italicized.
Composition titles that should not be italicized include the following:
- Shorter written or artistic pieces
- Works that are part of a larger work, e.g., episodes of a television show,
- Religious texts such as the Koran and the Bible (as well as its composite books, e.g., Genesis, Luke)
- Legal documents
2. For Foreign Words and Phrases in English Sentences
Italicize foreign words and phrases if your readers are unlikely to be familiar with the terms. E.g., phrases such as bon mot (witty remark), sotto voce (in a quiet voice), vox populi (voice of the people) will usually be italicized.
This rule also applies to the scientific names (that is, the genus and species names) of plants or animals e.g., Helianthus annuus (sunflower) and Canis latrans (coyote) should be italicized.
However, several foreign words have been fully incorporated into the English vocabulary, so they don’t require italics. E.g., English speakers are fully familiar with the words pizza or karate, so those words need no special treatment. In many cases, you’ll be using your own discretion when deciding whether or not to use italics.
3. For Names of Vehicles
The exception to this particular italics rule are brand names like Jeep Cheerokee or Boeing 747. The italicized treatment should be reserved for ships, airplanes, satellites and spacecraft that aren’t brand names e.g., U.S.S. Enterprise (note: you don’t italicize the U.S.S.).
4. For Emphasis
In this case, you’d use italics to stress the importance or a particular word or phrase. Example: “Do not respond to him when you’re angry.”
This technique needs to be used sparingly or else it’ll defeat the purpose.
5. For Words, Letters or Figures That Are Being Discussed as Such
The exception to this rule is proverbial expressions such as “Mind your p’s and q’s.” Otherwise, you can italicize the individual words, letter or numbers that you’re discussing in your text as in the following examples:
“The word leading has been used so frequently in press releases, it has lost most, if not all, impact.”
“The first 8 and the last 0 of the phone number are almost completely erased.”
If you’re not partial to italics, you can substitute underlining in all cases except the last. When discussing words, letters or figures, use quotation marks.
If you have any questions about when or how to use italics, drop me a line or leave a comment.