When to Use Italics in Your Writing
  • 6-minute read
  • 24th November 2019

When to Use Italics in Your Writing

Of all the typographic styles, italicization may look the most dynamic. Perhaps it’s the way the words slant to the right, as if striding confidently to a business meeting. Or perhaps we’re overthinking this. The point is that italics are a useful, versatile part of writing. But when should you use them?

Key occasions for using italics include:

  • To emphasize something.
  • For titles of standalone works, such as books and movies.
  • For vehicle names, such as ships.
  • To show that a word is borrowed from another language.
  • For the Latin “scientific” names of plant and animal species.

Let’s take a look at each of these to see how they work in practice.

Italics for Emphasis

Like bold fonts or underlining, italics are often used for emphasis. This means we can use italics to stress or draw attention to a particular word or phrase:

Italicization is the best way to emphasize something.

Here, italicizing best shows that we feel strongly about italics.

Generally, italics are the standard form of emphasis in academic writing. This is because they look more formal than bold formatting. However, always check your style guide if your university or employer has one, since some organizations have different rules about emphasizing text.

Italics in Place of Quote Marks

It would be unusual to italicize a full quote rather than placing it in quote marks. However, some people do use italics to set single words apart in the same way you might with quotes. For example:

Quote Marks: The word “italic” comes from a Greek word meaning “Italy.”

Italics: The word italic comes from a Greek word meaning Italy.

As with emphasis, if you are using a style guide, you may want to check whether it allows this. Otherwise, though, italics can be helpful if using too many quote marks makes your writing look cluttered.

When to Use Italics for Titles

Another common use of italicization is for titles. Not your own headings – you can italicize these, but that’s a matter of stylistic preference – but the titles of published works, such as books. For instance, if we mentioned a work by Charles Dickens in an essay, we would write it like this:

Queen Victoria read The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841.

By using italics, we set the title text apart from the rest of the sentence.

It’s not just books that you should do this for. Typically, the same applies for any self-contained media product or publication (i.e., something published by itself rather than as part of a collection). This includes the titles of:

  • Books and book-length poems
  • Academic journals (i.e., the journal title itself, not individual article titles)
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Movies, radio programs, and TV shows
  • Plays and other stage shows
  • Music albums and other published audio recordings
  • Paintings, statues, and other works of art

Titles of shorter works, by comparison, are often placed in quotation marks. However, the rules for presenting titles do vary between style guides.

Italicizing Vehicle Names

You can use italics for the names of individual vehicles, such as a ship or space rocket. For instance, we would italicize the following vehicle names:

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The sailors boarded the HMS Belfast in silence.

The Titanic sank during her maiden voyage.

Here, we italicize Belfast and Titanic because they’re the proper names of specific ships. We do not italicize the initials preceding names of ships (e.g., HMS, RMS, USS). In addition, you should only italicize the names of individual vehicles. If you’re writing the name of a brand or make of a vehicle (e.g., Ford Escort or Boeing 747), by comparison, you don’t need italics.

Italicizing Non-English Words

Make sure to italicize any non-English words you use in English-language writing. This shows the reader that the word was borrowed from another language. For instance, we could say:

In Germany, this feeling is known as Waldeinsamkeit.

The exact rules for when to italicize foreign words may vary depending on the style guide you check. For instance, most style guides make exceptions for words that are now fairly common in English even if they are still loanwords, so you would not usually need to italicize terms like “raison d’être.”

If in doubt, though, you can always check a good dictionary (e.g., the OED or Webster’s). Assuming you can find the word in the dictionary, it should be widely used enough in English to write without italics.

Italicizing Species Names

Binomial nomenclature (i.e., the Latin names given to plant and animal species) is usually italicized. For example, we could say:

Nobody wants Amorphophallus titanum growing in their garden.

As above, you should also capitalize the first word (i.e., the genus) in scientific plant and animal names, but not the second term (i.e., the species).

Other Uses for Italics

There are occasions when you may want to use italics not covered above. In fact, italics are useful for most situations where you need to make some part of a text distinct. One example comes from creative writing, where some people use italics to indicate an unspoken thought. For instance, we could use italics to show a character’s inner monologue:

Jeff sat silently in the doctor’s office. It wasn’t his usual doctor, so he was already nervous before the needle appeared.

“Don’t worry,” said the doctor. “It won’t hurt.”

Easy for you to say, Jeff thought. It’s not you at the sharp end of that thing. But he kept this to himself, instead uttering a meek “OK.”

However you use italics, though, there are two main rules to follow:

  1. Try not to use italics for too many different reasons in a single document. For instance, if you are writing something with a lot of titles and foreign words, you may want to find a different way of formatting emphasis.
  2. If you use italicized text for any part of a document, apply it consistently. So, for instance, if you’re using italics for loanwords in one part of an essay, you’ll want to do the same throughout the document.

And if you need anyone to check your use of italics in a document, our editors are here to help. Just submit your work for proofreading today.

Comments (12)
Linda
24th September 2020 at 18:16
Are cemetery names italicized? Not just one but many listed in an article?
    Proofed
    25th September 2020 at 10:38
    Hi, Linda. You wouldn't usually need to italicize cemetery names, no (nor place/building names in general).
Patrick M. Sullivan
12th December 2020 at 17:45
If a name that should be italicized is incorporated into a larger name that would not be, do we keep the original italics? E.g.: in the USS Lexington, "Lexington" is italicized; in the USS Lexington Museum, is "Lexington" still italicized?
    Proofed
    14th December 2020 at 10:14
    Interesting question, Patrick! When using the title of a book within a title of an article, most style guides suggest using italics for the title of the book (e.g., "A Beginner's Guide to Reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt"). If we extend that convention to a museum name, it would suggest italicizing "Lexington" just as you would if you were mentioning the ship elsewhere in the text. However, individual style guides may offer differing advice (e.g., a style sheet produced by a museum's marketing team would probably have its own guidelines on such things). And as long as you use a consistent style, there's probably room for flexibility here.
Georjina Chia
7th February 2021 at 05:56
According to your guidelines, it's a building, so it shouldn't be italicized.
    Proofed
    8th February 2021 at 09:31
    Hi, Georjina. If you're referring to the "USS Lexington Museum" comment, it is the name of a ship (which would conventionally be italicized) within the name of a museum, hence the clash of conventions and our explanation. As we say in the previous comment, though, there's room for flexibility here if you're not following a specific style guide.
Joe Gentile
2nd March 2022 at 11:10
Writing a short story about a guy who assigns a proper name to a group of picket-line crossers, referring to them as 'the Sellouts.' OK to italicize name?
    Proofed
    2nd March 2022 at 17:09
    Hi, Joe. Unless there's a reason to italicize the term, I'd not worry about it (the capital "S" in "Sellouts" clearly indicates that you're using it as a proper name by itself and italicizing it might make it seem like it's the title of something instead, given the common convention of italicizing titles). That said, it's your story and you're welcome to apply formatting however you like in creative writing! Other than the clarity issue noted above, the only thing to keep in mind would be where you plan to publish it and whether the publisher has guidelines on how to use italics.
Sana Adam
22nd August 2022 at 17:45
Can you italicize the virus family name if you start the sentence with it?
    Proofed
    27th August 2022 at 11:26
    Hi, Sana. With family names, the convention is usually not to italicize them, only the genus and species names (e.g., this would be Araceae in the case of our example Amorphophallus titanium in the article). You always italicize the species name, including at the beginning of the sentence.
Mae
7th September 2022 at 08:00
Are property names written in italics?
    Proofed
    9th September 2022 at 12:56
    Hi, Mae. If you mean the name of a building, then this doesn’t usually need to be italicized, unless you are using a particular style guide that requests it.

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