One of the greatest tools available in a writer’s arsenal, no matter the genre or style, is italics. It is, however, one of the most improperly-used tools out there. Of the large number of indie author works I have read in this last year – especially since I have such a long train ride these days – italic type is frequently overused and misused. So let’s take a look at italics; where it comes from, what it is used for, and how to avoid using it incorrectly.
Italic type, as the name suggests, hails from Italy. It is technically a cursive font and is heavily based on calligraphy, a type of handwriting that was originally developed in the same country. It has two primary subtypes, roman and oblique. The former draws more heavily on its calligraphic ancestry, adding extra details and flourishes to the letters. Oblique italics, on the other hand, are simply slanted letters. This, in modern writing, it the more common usage. For example: Italics vs Italics.
It is interesting to note that italics vary in certain cultures and time periods. For instance, the original use of italics, in the 15th century, had capital letters stand upright and were generally shorter than the following lower-case, italicized words. Italics in the Arabic script lean to the left, rather than the right. Some typefaces in the Latin script (the script you are reading right now) also lean to the left, though they are extremely uncommon. Finally, even more rare, some fields of mathematics use upright italics. This type of font does not slant, but draws on the roman subtype, adding additional features and swooshes to the font.
When should you use italics?
Let’s get down to the brass tacks. When is it appropriate to use italics?
- Emphasis/Stress (i.e. “It only looks harmless,” she said nervously.)
- Titles of works, such as books, songs, etc. (i.e. My work-in-progress, Archangel, is undergoing major revision.)
- The names of ships (i.e. Captain Kirk’s ship is the S.S. Enterprise) but the modifier (S.S.) remains upright.
- Foreign words (i.e. “So humans are also known as Homo sapiens,” I asked, “oui?”)
- Introducing new terminology (i.e. A prime number is only divisible by itself and one)
- Thought dialogue of a character (i.e. This is impossible, Karen thought as she took in the horde that filled the street. There are so many of them.)
- In algebra and physics (i.e. x = 17, the speed of light is c)
As always, these may vary based on the writer. Some people choose to put thoughts in quotation marks, but it is not the commonly-accepted practice to go against these usages. There are some well-known exceptions to these rules though, specifically when italics should appear in something that is already italicized. If a character is thinking about a book, then the book would appear upright and non-italicized.
I would much rather be working on Archangel than this spreadsheet, Doug was thinking as yet another email notification popped up on his screen.
When should you avoid italics?
There are a handful of technical rules of when you should not italicize fonts, and there are subjective ones as well. Here are some of the former.
- Public documents (i.e. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms)
- When you use “the” (i.e. I was reading the New York Times). This one is frequently overlooked, as is the notion that “the” should not be capitalized, even if it is part of the title. You can, however, put it in italics when it is the word you want to emphasize, or if "the" is part of the title of an original work, such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
- Foreign words that have been integrated into the English language (i.e. “Semper fi,” the marine grinned as he chambered another round.), though whether something has been integrated is subjective.
I am going to assume that the majority of people who read this blog are writers of fiction, or fans of it, so let me touch on the more subjective nature of italics used to emphasize text. This will vary from individual to individual, but I have noticed that a number of indie authors will use italics every single time they want a point emphasized. When this happens, the intended result disappears and you are instead left with a section of text that does not flow well. Italicized font is subtle, it will be significant when it is read, unconsciously even. However if you choose to use it frequently, the result is somewhat annoying to the brain.
You also have to have faith in your reader and your own skills. There will be multiple times when you want to draw the eyes to a particular passage or word and instinctively use italics. Don’t. There are a variety of tools available to you as a writer that can emphasize for you. And do not – under any circumstances – underestimate you audience. They are looking to be entertained and their mind can emphasize key passages on their own, or with minimal guidance.
It is just your job to help them along the way.