Learn When to Underline a Title

Although the content is always the most important aspect of your paper, its presentation matters as well. You must learn when to underline a title.

Any errors or issues will draw attention away from what you want to say.

While spelling and grammar check are the most obvious tools all writers resort to when revising their completed work, some fail to verify that the usage of titles, expressions, numbers, etc., is uniform. Addressing even the minutest discrepancies makes the finished piece more professional and gives credibility to the arguments presented.

When writing theses and formal academic work, typically one of the standard style guides is adopted, such as MLA, APA, Harvard, etc. These style guides are very specific and prescribe formatting of headings, paragraph indentation and spacing, usage of statistic expressions, and capitalization of names of theories, to name a few.

Some style guides do not recommend using underlining at all, for any purpose. Even italics are used sparingly for emphasis or Latin words, such as in vitro.

Most also advocate not referring to titles of works cited. Instead, the titles are cited in the references section and only author-date citation format is adopted in the text, such as:

In his latest work, Jones (2000) noted that…

The corresponding reference in APA style would be (where reference entries are presented in alphabetic order, by author surname, and then in descending order by year of publication, if citing several works by the same author):

Jones, Y. M. (2000). The Art of Knowing. New York, NY: Sage.

In this case, as the reader can infer the book title from the reference corresponding to the citation Jones (2000), it is not given in the text.

However, when referring to work titles directly in the main body of work, a few points should be noted:

  1. Underlining (when permitted by the style guide adopted) is used for emphasis and, as it has the same purpose as italics, only one should be chosen in your work and used consistently.
  2. Only the stand-alone work should be either underlined or italicized, such as book title, magazine title, the name of a conference, etc.
  3. Parts of works, such as book chapters, magazine articles, and similar, should be presented in quotation marks.

The primary goal in writing is to show your work clearly so that there is no confusion. Thus, if you are using italics for long direct quotes presented in block format, then any further emphasis within that section should be made by underlining or using quotation marks.

However, if you are writing for an online publication where hyperlinks are always underlined, avoid using an underline for any other purpose. Some readers may mistake the underlined text for a hyperlink that does not work.

As always, when in doubt, check some examples of similar works.

Better yet, seek editorial help. You will then be sure that no such issues remain and your writer’s voice can truly shine through!

underline a title

This article details when to underline a title. When writing a thesis, it is customary to conform to either a specific style guide, such as APA, MLA, Chicago, Harvard, or some of the popular styles, depending on the field of study and university guidelines. In that case, every aspect of the manuscript presentation is stipulated by your chosen style and there is no room for deviation.

For example, APA (American Psychological Association) allows for only five heading levels, which are never enumerated but rather are distinguished by position on the page, usage of font, capitalization, and punctuation. Similar rules can be found in other major styles.

On the other hand, when writing a scientific paper for a peer-reviewed journal, you should carefully read the submission guidelines and follow them exactly, in order for your work to be judged by its merit and content, rather than attracting criticism owing to its poor presentation.

Thus, the question of when to underline a title really applies to essays and works that are less formal, where the author can express his/her style and views more freely.

For example, when writing a non-fiction book or a technical manual, you might find it appropriate to underline titles of certain sections to draw readers’ attention to important parts of the content. When doing so, it is important to make sure that you decide on heading hierarchy and stick to it throughout the manuscript, in order to achieve consistency in presentation.

For example, if you have the following structure:



Heading 3

Heading 4

You should never have only one sub-heading after the main heading, as this is inappropriate.

To clarify, let us use an example:



Text goes here…

Background Information

Text goes here…


Text goes here…


Above, there is only one heading level 3 between two level 2 headings, which is incorrect. Proper usage would be:




Text goes here…

Background Information

Text goes here…

Main Works Published between 1900 and 2000

Text goes here…


Text goes here…


It is also important to note that, when citing sources in the text, most experts advise to underline titles of longer works only. For example:


In his recent adaptation of the musical Oklahoma, the playwright decided to…


However, as with every aspect of writing, when in doubt, it is always best to seek editorial help. These experts will know all major style guides, as well as up-to-date writing rules and will assist you in the presentation of your work, allowing you to focus on your studies and writing!

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