The Convoluted Conventions of Italics

November 9, 2017

Meow or meow?


Getting italics right is important for wannabe professional writers because agents, publishers, literary judges and editors are notoriously conservative. With their in-box bulging to bursting, they’re conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to filter out anything that’s not near-perfect. Omitting or including italics where they obviously should or shouldn’t be is another excuse for them to stop reading and bin it.  


Meow or meow? It depends. Reproducing a sound like bang, boom, moo and meow, goes in italics. Reporting that sound doesn’t. Example: 'Meow. Hearing the cat meow, I knelt and stroked it.’ The first meow is in italics because the cat’s doing it. The second isn’t because a character’s reporting what he heard not mimicking it. If he had mimicked it, then you'd use italics to indicate that.  


Always use Italics for:

  • Book titles (apart from the Bible and Koran)

  • Long poems that make up a single book

  • Plays

  • CDs and albums but not individual songs and movements

  • Films

  • Artworks

  • Journals and magazines but not the articles and essays within them

  • Television and Radio programs but not individual episodes

  • Newspapers but don't include ‘The’ in italics, e.g. The Times

  • Foreign words and phrases not in common use, e.g. Deja vu is French but not italicised because it's in common English use. Merci would be italicised because it isn't

  • Ship and Train names but exclude prefixes like H.M.S., e,g. The battleship H.M.S Ulysses


Word emphasis is another use, but don’t overdo it or it loses impact. Example: ‘How are you,’ his ex asks. ‘How do you think?’ The italics indicate he is stressing the word 'how' (maybe sarcastically). In fact the tone might apply to the full sentence but you only ever apply it to one word.


For differentiating narrative. And here you have choices to make. The rule is consistency. If you decide to use italics to differentiate a word that others might differentiate by quotation marks, don’t chop and change. So, to write, ‘Take the, and and he out of his novel and you’d have a short story,’ is fine. Whereas, Take ‘the’ and and ‘he’…’ is not.


Epistolary (letters), written notes and texts are commonly differentiated by italics.

Thoughts too, but only where they are direct rather than reported. What you decide will depend on your narrative. If your book is epistolary, i.e. written as an exchange of letters, the letters would normally not be in italics but any narrative outside the letters might be to differentiate it. When it comes to thoughts, it an get very complicated. Here's an example:


I’m working on a novel where, in part 1, there are lengthy dialogues between a girl and her imagined father in her unconscious. She is in a coma. These exchanges make up the majority of the narrative.They are thoughts but I choose not to italicise them because they are dialogue too and, anyway, I find lengthy italics are wearing. Not italicising these 'thoughts' also allows me to differentiating the thoughts beneath the dialogue. These 'secret' thoughts I do italicise.


A common error: When using italics for titles of books etc, don’t italicise question marks and possessives that are not part of it. So, if you were brazen enough to write, ‘I Am Pilgrim’s a great thriller Mr Agent but mine’s better,’ you are asking for the rebuke, ‘I Am Pilgrim’s (note that the apostrophe and s are not italicised this time because it isn’t part of the title of the book) is written by someone who knows his grammar. You clearly don’t.’ Only if the question mark, apostrophe or other symbol is actually part of the title is it italicised.




Book Review/Recommendation: Music for Torching by A. M. Holmes


Suburban middle-class America taken to extremes of bed hopping and pill popping, disappointments and deceits, neuroses and derangements. Elaine and Paul have two kids and friends who might as well be clones. Where did their life go and what to do about it? Burn the house down of course. Only houses don’t burn that easily and all it does is force them closer together in the smouldering shell of what’s left of their lives. A new beginning or a delayed end?


If that sounds depressing. it isn’t: it’s hilarious, outrageous, sexy and farcical with a focus sharper than Hubble. Another book I intend to reread.

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