Italics, use of.

My editor wants me to provide a style guide for my manuscript. One particular I am struggling with is the use of italics. I would like to employ them sparingly, but it is important to remember that they can enhance clarity. In my naivete, I thought she would simply correct instances where I had misused them. Alas, it is not that simple.

The Rules, it turns out, are unwritten.  Not all of them. Everyone agrees on the use of italics for book titles: War and Peace. Ship names: H.M.S. Sussex. Things like foreign words, although disagreements creep in as to whether this should be done every time, or only in the first instance. There is broad agreement on their use for emphasis: ‘Do you want to die?’ Then it all goes downhill.

Should italics be used for sound effects? Strunk and White make no mention of it, and I couldn’t find anything in two of my other favourite reference books, Woe is I and Usage and Abusage. I’ve seen it done, though.

Internal monologue seems to be a particularly divisive case. Some editors rail against it, some clearly permit it.

I set out to answer the question by skimming the first one hundred pages of three novels from my bookshelf.

The Golden Compass was written by Philip Pullman, who is British, but it is an American edition. Laurel-Leaf is an imprint of Random House.  Mr. Pullman’s use of italics is sparing, almost Spartan. In a hundred pages, I found only twenty seven instances of italics used for emphasis, all of them single words. Also a handful of foreign words, and a couple of words discussed as words. I searched for italics in internal dialogue, but Mr. Pullman cleverly used Lyra’s daemon Pan as a device; Lyra voices almost all of her thoughts out loud to him. I found few unambiguous examples of internal monologue and no italics used that way.

Conclusion: it is possible to write a novel with minimal use of italics.

The Hunger Games was written by Suzanne Collins, an American, and published by Scholastic. It is the only one of the three novels I looked at to be written in the first person. Ms. Collins uses no italics at all for the first twenty pages, and in the one hundred pages I checked, I did not find a single example of italics used for emphasis. She does, however, use them for internal monologue. Usually, these are short sentences with the tag, ‘I thought’ or, ‘I remembered’ attached. Yes, there is an element of emphasis to those phrases. I also found a couple of foreign words, a handful of words as words, and a single sound effect.

Conclusion: the use of italics for emphasis and for internal monologue are optional.

Wake was written by Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian who writes in American English, (I asked him) and published by Penguin. Italics abound. Mr. Sawyer uses them for emphasis on almost every page and he uses them wholesale when Caitlin is typing; she is a heavy user of social networking. This is a good example of effective use of italics to enhance clarity, because the reader always knows what Caitlin types, as opposed to what she thinks. There are numerous other uses of italics, such as the names of scientific journals. Pages entirely free of italics were rare.

Conclusion: italics can enhance clarity, even when used more freely.

It is a good thing I looked at three novels, not one. Each of the books I checked used italics in vastly different ways. Obviously, there is a large amount of leeway; no wonder my editor wanted me to set my own ground rules.

There is one more way of using italics that I have only hinted at so far. Although Mr. Pullman does not permit Lyra to speak with her daemon telepathically, many fantasy novels do feature some form of mental communication. In my own work, two of my characters become linked by a technology that allows them to speak silently to one another, and it even happens involuntarily now and then. In order to make it clear when Raven’s thoughts are heard by Mel, italics are the way to go. However, the ‘comm’ is also used for routine calls, in much the same way that I use my cell phone. I do not think italics are called for in those instances. I will have to develop rules, because I need to be consistent so that the reader will understand.

I welcome comments, not only from writers, (a handful follow this blog) but anyone who reads. Do you like to see italics used sparingly, or whenever they might enhance clarity?

3 thoughts on “Italics, use of.

  1. I was always taught that the emphasis of a sentence should be obvious without having to use italics, or you need to rewrite the sentence or context in which it is spoken. I think it should be down to personal choice and used as a device whoever suits. It’s interesting in what different ways they are used (I had never really thought about that.) I reckon as long as the purpose for them is clear, and they are not over employed to prop up sloppy writing, then viva italics.
    (I used them 3 times in a 120,000 word novel. I am unpublished so there may be an unwelcome correlation. Ha ha.)

  2. I don’t generally use italics, even for internal dialogue. I don’t know why it’s a personal preference, but it is. I don’t mind when a story uses them. I think italics are great for internal dialogue, but they don’t really seem necessary for much else.

  3. Italics are also commonly used for any electronic communications – telephone or radio conversations are generally in italics, like telepathic conversations, only usually only the remote side is in italics.

    I use them that way in my writing, but also to indicate tone in dialogue, but *never* in narrative. Narrative, yes, it’s better to phrase the sentence in an obvious way. In dialogue on the other hand, people talk the way they talk, and emphasis on certain words in a sentence can dramatically change the meaning of the sentence.

    The thing to keep in mind when you’re deciding where to allow the use of italics in your own work, and what not to use it for, is whether or not it’s going to confuse the reader. If you have Italics used for telepathic conversation, you may want to forgo using italics for internal monologue. Or not – it depends on how much telepathic stuff is going on. If it’s only a couple instances, it might not be a big deal, but after two instances of italics being used for telepathic speech, I’d assume any italics used after that would also be telepathic speech, and I’d be confused if it wasn’t.

    Using it to denote tone, on the other hand, because you’re generally italicizing only a single word at a time (or de-italicizing a word if the passage is italicized) it doesn’t run the same risk of confusing the reader.

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