It is often difficult to sort out when to italicize a title in our writing. There are so many types of content that it becomes difficult to keep track.
In early school years, it is relatively easy—underline book titles (as most people generally can’t italicize their handwriting). Then comes high school, where you have to debate whether to use italics or quotation marks for those Bob Dylan lyrics.
Luckily, there are some hard and fast rules for which titles you should italicize and which ones you should not, as seen below.
When to Italicize a Title
Long Poems (e.g., The Illiad)
Names of music albums
Name of a Course Offering
These basic grammar rules are universal.
However, there are some rules of punctuating titles that are much more fluid. For instance, in academic writing, you may be bound to italicize certain other titles. For example, APA requires that you italicize the names of websites. Harvard style (often used in Canada and the UK) does not have this requirement.
Meanwhile, there are also journals that do not allow you to italicize at all, instead mandating underlining for titles. You need to follow the publication’s specific rules.
For fiction writers and for writing in the business world, you may breathe easy knowing you never need to look beyond the table above for references.
For academics, always be sure to consult your chosen style guide prior to composing your work. This way, you can be sure all of your titles are formatted correctly.
Italics are becoming a more acceptable writing feature and are now used by authors in various contexts. They can be an excellent way to draw attention to specific words in the text and emphasize differences or contradictions. They are also often used when citing titles of books, newspapers, plays, movies, music albums, or poems.
However, as with everything, some rules should be followed to italicize a title.
First, if you are following a particular style guide, such as MLA, APA, Harvard, or similar (or your university has strict instructions for submission of essays, dissertations, and theses), then you should study these carefully. Make sure your writing conforms to these rules.
For example, in APA, use of italics is discouraged, even when it would be common in other contexts.
Second, when italicizing, it is unusual to underline as well. These typographical features are usually employed for the same purpose. Having both would be superfluous.
Third, make sure that usage is consistent throughout your manuscript (for example, if you use in situ, then you must italicize ex-situ as well).
Fourth, it is acceptable to italicize Latin words. Foreign words are also often italicized in the first instance, unless they’ve been adopted into the mainstream (check the dictionary; if it’s there, no need for italics).
Fifth, book, journal, and magazine titles are usually italicized when cited in the main body of text, as are names of plays and movies.
Sixth, depending on the style guide you adopt, in the references section (also known as “bibliography” or “works cited”), you might italicize names of books, journals, and periodicals, as well as other sources, such as web pages.
Italics in Informal Writing
Other than that, the most frequent use of italics is in informal writing, when wishing to place emphasis on certain words, such as:
“The present was not meant for you!”
In the above, we wish to stress that the person being spoken to was not the intended recipient of the present.
Needless to say, when in doubt, it is best to seek the assistance of a professional editor. With so many rules and styles in use, it is no wonder writers can get confused. Rather than worrying about such details, you can focus on your work, leaving its presentation to those who will make sure that every word you write leaves the desired impression on your target audience.
Originally posted 7/13/2016 and happily updated 10/28/2017. Thanks for reading!