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The Use of Italicization in Written English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/28/2013

Similar to punctuation marks, typographical techniques like italicization are a convention of written language that help readers more easily read and understand writing. Italicization is used in five basic ways in the English language. Also included is a printable reference sheet.

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    Punctuation and Italicization

    Like punctuation marks, italicization is a typographical technique that ensures the clarity of writing by identifying words and phrases used English differently from the standard. Italicization performs five basic functions in written English. We'll go through each one in turn.

    Many people who are otherwise good writers misuse italics, so it's a good idea to bookmark this page.

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    Titles of Major Works

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

    • Have you read the books Inkheart, Inkspell, and Inkdeath?
    • My parents subscribe to The Pantagraph.
    • The best Everclear album is So Much for the Afterglow.
    • Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are the most well-known plays by Shakespeare.
    • Did you enjoy Song of Myself by Walt Whitman?
    • It's a Wonderful Life is a popular Christmas movie.
    • My favorite painting by Frida Kahlo is The Broken Column.

    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 a 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 The Use of Quotation Marks in Written English.

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    Emphasis

    2. Use italicization to emphasize words and phrases. For example:

    • Do not italicize the titles of poems.
    • You named your daughter Moonbeam?!
    • Your grandmother fell down the stairs!

    Do not overuse italicization as too many italicized words and phrases become tedious as opposed to emphasized.

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    Letters and Words as Words

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

    • Please revise your essay so that not every sentence begins with the.
    • I think you misunderstand the meaning of complement in this article.
    • Up, in, and on are common prepositions in English.
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    Linguistic Examples

    4. Use italicization to identify linguistic examples. For example:

    • The object pronoun me is a prepositional complement in the prepositional phrase to me.
    • The verbs should, could, and would are modal verbs.
    • Nouns can function as noun phrase modifiers as in table leg and hotel room.
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    Foreign words and phrases

    5. 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.

    • My favorite Mexican food is enchiladas.
    • You have quite the laissez-faire attitude.
    • My favorite genre of literature is fantasy.
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    Printable Download

    For a printable reference sheet of the rules for italicization, please click to download The Use of Italicization in Written English Reference Sheet.

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