Most word processors can produce italics, which are slanted letters — like these. If you can't produce italics, the conventional substitute is to use underlining — like this. Italics have several uses.

Most commonly, italics are used for emphasis or contrast — that is, to draw attention to some particular part of a text. Here are some examples:

The Battle of New Orleans was fought in January 1815, two weeks after the peace treaty had been signed.
According to the linguist Steven Pinker, "Many prescriptive rules of grammar are just plain dumb and should be deleted from the usage handbooks" [emphasis added].
Standard English usage requires `insensitive' rather than `unsensitive'.
Lemmings have, not two, but three kinds of sex chromosome.

The first two examples illustrate emphasis and the last two illustrate contrast. This is the standard way of representing emphasis or contrast; you should not try to use quotation marks or other punctuation marks for this purpose.

Another use of italics is to cite titles of complete works: books, films, journals, musical compositions, and so on:

We saw a performance of the Messiah on Saturday.
Chomsky's book Syntactic Structures revolutionized linguistics.
Spielberg won his Oscars for Schindler's List.

An exception: the names of holy books are usually not written in italics. Thus, we write about the (Holy) Bible and the (Holy) Koran, with no italics. Don't ask me why.

Note, however, that we do not use italics when citing a name which is only a conventional description:

Dvořák's ninth symphony is commonly known as the New World symphony.

Here the label `Dvořák's ninth symphony' is not strictly a title, and hence is not italicized.

A third use of italics is to cite foreign words when talking about them. Examples:

The French word pathétique is usually best translated as `moving', not as `pathetic'.
The German word Gemütlichkeit is not easy to translate into English.
The Sicilian tradition of omertà has long protected the Mafia.
At Basque festivals, a favourite entertainment is the sokamuturra, in which people run in front of a bull which is restricted by ropes controlled by handlers.

Related to this is the use of italics when using foreign words and phrases which are not regarded as completely assimilated into English:

Psychologists are interested in the phenomenon of déjà vu.
This analysis is not in accord with the Sprachgefühl of native speakers.

If you are not sure which foreign words and phrases are usually written in italics, consult a good dictionary.

It is also quite common to use italics when citing English words that are being talked about, as an alternative to single quotes:

The origin of the word boy is unknown.
Note the spelling difference between premier (an adjective meaning `first' or `most important') and premiere (a noun meaning `first performance').

Finally, italics are used in certain disciplines for various specific purposes. Here are two of the commoner ones. In biology, genus and species names of living creatures are italicized:

The earliest known member of the genus Homo is H. habilis.
The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a familiar American bird.

Note that a genus name always has a capital letter, while a species name never does.

Second, names of legal cases are italicized:

The famous case of Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark in American legal history.

In this case, note that the abbreviation v., which stands for versus (`against') stands in roman type, not in italics. Note also that the American abbreviation is vs.:

(A) The famous case of Brown vs. Board of Education was a landmark in American legal history.

Special note: If you have a sentence containing a phrase which would normally go into italics, and if for some reason the entire sentence needs to be italicized, the the phrase that would normally be in italics goes into ordinary roman type instead. So, if for some reason my last example sentence needs to be italicized, the result looks like this:

The famous case of Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark in American legal history.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex