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What are italics?

Italics are a style of font slanting to the right. The word has its roots in the Latin and Greek adjective ‘pertaining to Italy’. Italics are most often used for emphasis or contrast, and to distinguish certain words from others within the text.

Usage of italics

Italics are used in several ways. These are the most common:

Emphasis or contrast
He wasn’t the only one to blame (emphasis).
English usage requires ‘insensitive’ rather than ‘unsensitive’ (contrast).

• Titles
Titles of books, films, musical compositions, music CD’s, academic journals, plays, poems, periodicals, newspapers, websites and television or radio programmes.

These apply to works that can stand by themselves. Works that appear within larger works (short stories, poems etc.) are not italicised and are placed in quotation marks. For some reason the same applies to tracks on a music CD.

Names of ships, trains, aircraft and spacecraft
Names such as Titanic and Mayflower (ships), Orient Express (train), Enola Gay (aircraft) or Challenger (spacecraft) are italicised. Brand names are not italicised, e.g. Boeing or Ford. The initials HMS and USS (as in HMS Victory and USS Constitution) are never italicised and do not have full stops. Note that when using an apostrophe to create the possessive form of a name, only the name itself is in italics. E.g. in the words ‘the Titanic’s lifeboats’ the apostrophe and the ‘s’ are in roman.

Foreign words
Italics are used if the word is not regarded as being sufficiently assimilated into English (deo volente, matelot, gesundheit). Scientific names, e.g. for flowers or plants, are in Latin and are therefore italicised.

• Symbols
Algebraic symbols and symbols for mathematical constants and physical quantities
These are conventionally set in italics.

A character’s thought process
In novels, writers sometimes put their characters’ thoughts and ideas in italics, e.g. Surely no one could have done such a terrible thing, he thought.

Works of art
The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre.

Famous speeches
One of Churchill’s most famous speeches is Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat.

Representing sounds
Words that imitate sounds are italicised. The train sped past with a loud whoosh. These are often followed by an exclamation mark.

Points to remember about italics

• Newspapers usually have their own way of doing things, so many of the above do not necessarily apply.

• An exception to italicising the names of books is holy books. Although it makes no sense it is customary to write Bible and Koran in roman lettering, not italics.

• The names of legal cases are often italicised, although this custom seems to be disappearing. The ‘v.’ as in Smith v. Jones is always a roman letter.

• Be careful, when italicising, to make certain if punctuation marks should be included. In this example the question mark should not be italicised: ‘Have you seen the Mona Lisa?’

• Underlining words would achieve the same purpose as italicising them. Note that one does not underline words that are italicised.

• Sometimes it depends on the context, or it can be a matter of personal choice, whether or not a foreign word is italicised.

• Do not overdo the use of italics. This causes them to lose their effect.

• Be consistent with your italicising.

Remember that, like so many rules in the English language, the rules for using italics can vary.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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