Tips from the Editor – The Proper Use of Italics

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editor1aBy Kelly Laycock

Italic typeface (characters set at a slant to the right) is a typographical device found in all types of writing, and is used for a variety of reasons, the most common of which I hope to illuminate in this post. Italics is the equivalent of underlining, which, in the era of typewriters, was once the most effective way to highlight or set apart a word or phrase from those set in roman type (characters set completely vertical). You should never find text set both in italics and underlined, mostly because it is quite unattractive (but worse, it is redundant).   

Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, cautions writers about the use of typographical devices (page 404):

Strong writers rely on diction, syntax, and content to convey the desired tone or emphasis in their sentences. Less confident writers, however, sometimes rely on typographical devices (italic or bold type, exclamation points, and quotation marks). Copyeditors are expected to reduce the visual clutter.

Italics and Bold. In running text, italics and boldface should be used sparingly to set off specific terms and phrases. Most publishers discourage the use of italics or boldface for entire sentences and paragraphs: Long passages of wavy italic type are often difficult to read, and large patches of boldface (or frequent small patches of bold type) look unattractive. In addition, when italics and bold are used in the running text as well as in headings, captions, and other display elements, the various typographical treatments compete for the reader’s attention.

So what are the proper uses of italics? Chicago Manual of Style and The Copyeditor’s Handbook agree on the following list:

  1. Emphasis
  2. Foreign words and phrases
  3. Key terms
  4. Words used as words, and letters as letters

Along with these four main points, a few circumstances arise that require some contemplation, such as the use of Latin phrases and abbreviations, and for the titles of works.

Italics for emphasis

“Use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure. Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis, and never a whole passage.” (CMS 7.47)

In regards to this advice, Butterick (the author of Typography for Lawyers) lets his opinion be known in no uncertain terms:

Some lawyers — let’s call them overemphasizers — just can’t get enough bold and italic. If they feel strongly about the point they’re making, they won’t hesitate to run the whole paragraph in bold type. Don’t be one of these people. This habit wears down your readers’ retinas and their patience. It also gives you nowhere to go when you need to emphasize a word. That’s no problem for overemphasizers, who resort to underlining bold text or using a lot of bold italic. These are both bad ideas.

He then gives us some sage advice: “With a serif font, use italic for gentle emphasis, or bold for heavier emphasis…If you’re using a sans serif font, skip italic and use bold for emphasis.”

Please emphasize this word
Please emphasize this word

Please emphasize this word

Please emphasize this word

When quoting material, it is important to clarify if the italics were in the original quote, or if you are using an editorial voice to highlight something important. Einsohn suggests using the phrases [emphasis added] or [emphasis in the original] in quotations where italics have been used for emphasis.

Italics for unfamiliar foreign words and phrases

Italics are often used to highlight words and phrases from other languages placed in an English context. If the foreign term has become widely used in English, then it should be set in roman. Einsohn explains how to make this decision (page 129):

Non-naturalized foreign terms are set in italics. When a non-naturalized import appears repeatedly in the text, it is set in italics on first mention and usually set in roman thereafter…Here again, a copyeditor must gauge the readership: If the term is set in roman, will readers be confused? If the term is set in italics, will readers be surprised?

Italics for key terms

Key terms in a particular context are often italicized on their first occurrence. Thereafter they are best set in roman.” (CMS 7.54)

The two chief tactics of this group, obstructionism and misinformation, require careful analysis.

Italics for words used as words, and letters as letters

“When a word or term is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself, it is either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks. Proper nouns used as words, on the other hand, are usually set in roman.” (CMS 7.58)

The term critical mass is more often used metaphorically than literally.
What is meant by neurobotics?
The i in the name iPod is supposed to invoke the Internet.

When letters are used as letters, they are also set in italics:

the letter q
He signed the document with an X.

Latin words and abbreviations

CMS tells us that commonly used Latin words and abbreviations should not be italicized.

et al.

However, “because of its peculiar use in quoted matter, sic is best italicized.”

mindful of what has been done here by we [sic] as agents of principle

(For the proper use of these abbreviations, consult CMS 10.43 Scholarly abbreviations.)

The use of scientific (Latin) names of plants and animals should be italicized.

…the genus is capitalized, while the species and subspecies are lowercased: Escherichia coli; Ursus americanus; Heteromeles arbutifolia macrocarpa. On the second reference, the genus name is usually abbreviated and only its first letter is given: E. coli; U. americanus; H. arbutifolia. (The Copyeditor’s Handbook, page 163)


A slightly trickier topic is the use of italics for titles of works. As you’ve probably noticed, each time I use the name Chicago Manual of Style or The Copyeditor’s Handbook, they are italicized. That is because they are full-length books. There is a general hierarchy that seems to be consistent across the style guides I usually consult, which Einsohn explains concisely on page 163:

Within running text, the titles of books, newspapers, magazines, journals, movies, operas, and works of art are set in italics. The titles of short literary works (poems, essays, short stories, and magazine and journal articles) and short musical works (songs) are set in roman type and placed in quotation marks.

Websites and web pages deserve their own discussion, but the general guideline comes from CMS 8.186:

General titles of websites mentioned or cited in text or notes are normally set in roman, headline-style, without quotation marks. An initial the in such titles should be lowercased in midsentence.

For example, The Chicago Manual of Style Online or the online edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. For a page from the website, use roman with quotation marks: “Chicago Style Q&A” or “New Questions and Answers”.

That’s great to be aware of these guidelines, but when it comes time to implement them, I find it always best to double-check. Chapter 8 of the Chicago Manual of Style deals extensively with the treatment of Names and Terms. It is a thorough resource and well worth the read.



Butterick, Matthew. Typography for Lawyers. Online: accessed April 14, 2015.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 2nd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010)

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