“Italics: a style of printing type chiefly used to indicate emphasis or a foreign word.” (definition from Collins English Dictionary, 2010)
Many authors are confused when it comes to using italic in their writing, but within publishing the conventions are fairly simple, and the above definition sums it up very neatly. Follow this and you won’t go far wrong.
So, what should be put into italic? Basically, relatively little. There is no rule at all that says you have to use italics for anything. When we speak, the intonation and body language we use illustrates the emphasis we put on any one word or phrase, often by that annoying habit of people wagging their index fingers as if being a quotation mark. In writing, we have to use other means. In handwriting, unless you were a calligrapher, the method used was either a different coloured ink or underlining. This has developed into the internationally accepted standard of italic font as used by the printing industry. In typesetting and publishing/printing, a word underscored means “put into italic”.
Text that is interspersed constantly with normal and italic fonts is hard on the eye, as is whole chucks of italic text. The best guide is to only put into italic a word that you want put emphasis on, to enable the reader to fully understand and engage in the meaning. For example: “You will do it” and “You will do it” each have a different meaning. The first, a soft, supportive statement; the second, an imperative order.
A word on underlining. Do not use this in novels or reference books, especially when self-publishing. With the narrow spacing between lines, underscoring makes reading tiresome and difficult, and in ebooks it highlights a word for other means. Do not use underline and bold together, and definitely a big no no is italic plus underline and/or plus bold. NO NO This is out and out overkill!
Apart from highlighting a word for emphasis, we also put into italic any foreign word or phrase borrowed from another language and has not yet become part of everyday English language usage, particularly French and Latin. For example, terminus a quo would be in italic; status quo, not italic – the former an uncommon phrase, the latter now part of everyday English. But the writer doesn’t necessarily know what is still a foreign word or what has now become an accepted word in English. This is where having a comprehensive, up-to-date dictionary is worth the cost. Ones such as the Collins English Dictionary or the OED will list words with their correct italic/capitalisation format.
What does cause confusion is where foreign food and drink are concerned. You wouldn’t expect to see quiche, spaghetti bolognaise, linguine or espresso and cappuccino in italic, however, coq au vin and Coquilles St Jacques would be. Likewise, you would have a glass of burgundy or perhaps you’d prefer the Cote du Rhone. None of these words would look or be wrong if they were in normal font. It’s a matter of choice or editorial preference or house style. What is important is to be consistent. If you put a word in italic, ensure every time you use that word in your book it is in italic. Names of ships and boats or normally in italic (the Titanic) although, again, it is not wrong for it to be normal font. The good old saying “if in doubt, leave it out” can be applied here.
Most publishing houses have their own rules and guidelines on this matter, and if writing for one of them, obtain a copy of the in‑house style sheet. Newspapers also have their own convention.
What about when citing songs, books, film or play titles, newspapers and magazines, painting titles? The modern convention is for these to be in italic but there is nothing wrong in putting these in normal font. What they shouldn’t be in is quotation marks. Quotation marks are for dialogue and quotes; that’s what they’re there for, that’s their job. The accepted convention, even in the press industry, is to italicise the names of newspapers, journals and books. The main factor in all is consistency throughout the document. Note: the word “the” does not go in italic nor should it be capitalised unless it forms an integral part of the name and that which it has become familar.
Punctuation with italic: any punctuation that follows an italicised word/s or should be in normal font if it is within a normal font sentence. With quotation marks, if the whole sentence or quote is in italic, it is acceptable for the opening and closing quote marks to be italic although it is now common for normal font quotation marks to be used and only the actual quoted words in italic. Again, this is a matter of preference or house style.
Location and place names, names of shops and venues, pop groups etc, brand names, pub names (again, the word “the” is not capitalised: the Pig and Whistle, the Beatles, the Queen), car models, should be in normal font.
But the use of italic doesn’t end here. You can put whole paragraphs or sections into italic if you want to show something by way of illustration or to make it stand out from the rest, ie a letter or a quotation, or different sections, if perhaps writing from, say, two different viewpoints or time frames, such as in a time slip novel. Any sections in italic should begin on a new line, and any word/s that would normally be emphasised in italic within that paragraph or section, put to normal font. You could even write the whole book in italic if that is your want, reversing the font switch.
So really there are only two things to consider: 1) use for emphasis only and for foreign words, 2) be consistent in whichever choice you make within a document.