You Want Italics Where? 14 Places The Chicago Manual of Style Asks for Italics

Italics are like fancy dress for words. Seeing a word in italics is like going into your local grocery store and seeing someone working there in a samurai costume. “Well,” you think, “you’re certainly here to tell me something.”

There are quite a lot of places we want to dress up words with italics. For some of us, there are too darn many places. As The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS 17, 7.50) admonishes us, “Overused, italics quickly lose their force.” But if we follow a manual like CMOS, it does say that we have to use italics in quite a few places. Here’s an exhausting—but not entirely exhaustive—list of where to use (and not to use) italics.

  1. For emphasis. But, as CMOS 17, 7.50 admonishes, “only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure.” Some of us really like adding emphasis, but it’s a bit like laughing at your own jokes. You don’t need it if the words pack enough punch by themselves—which, generally, they should. 
  1. In place of underlining. But if you’re presenting transcriptions of handwritten letters, you may prefer to keep underlining as underlining—especially if there’s also double underlining, or if you want to add your own emphasis: “We wish you would come as soon as possible to retrieve your nasty little dog, which has destroyed all the rose bushes” [italics added]. 
  1. For titles of books, magazines, and albums (but not of short stories, songs, or poems—unless they’re book-length poems). Basically, if it’s a whole publication of its own that you can hold in your hand, it gets italics; if it’s just a part of one of those, it goes in quotes. However, if a play or novel is included in an anthology, it still gets italics. And, on the other hand, even if you’re holding in your hand the one-sided twelve-inch extended-play single of “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” by Kiss, it’s still not in italics, because it’s just one song, even if it does go on for almost eight minutes.

  2. Not for the periods or commas following those titles, in most instances. The following punctuation is not part of the title, after all. This is where the eagle-eyed editors really get their bragging rights. Don’t believe me? Just search “italicized period” on Twitter to find all the editors posting their wins. This principle also holds true when you’re using italics for emphasis: the punctuation is only italicized if it’s part of what’s emphasized (“Your mom is arriving tomorrow?” “Yup!”).

  3. Not for words in those titles that would normally be in italics. Got that? Italics are like an on/off switch: if it’s already on, you have to turn it off to signify italics-within-italics, such as when a title uses a scientific name (see below about those): Winnie the Ursus arctos: A Child’s First Taxonomy Book. The exception is when a book title mentions another book’s title within it; then you use quotation marks: Fear and Loathing in Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. 
  1. For abbreviations of those titles. The Chicago Manual of Style is, for short, CMOS, not CMOS. Enough said. 
  1. For words taken from other languages. The counsel of CMOS 17, 7.53, is “Use italics for isolated words and phrases from another language unless they appear in Webster’s or another standard English-language dictionary.” But, they add, “If a word from another language becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence.” And on top of this, “This rule does not extend to proper nouns, which can generally appear in roman type (except for titles of books and the like).” The trick here is the question of how familiar the word is. Because the English language has stolen so much of its vocabulary from other languages, and because italics are so very self-conscious, if there’s any question whether italics are necessary, it’s safer not to use them, as the CMOS Shop Talk blog (But, per Chicago Style, we always italicize the Latin sic, as in “He said he was totally thicc [sic].”) 
  1. For words qua words. That means when you’re talking about the word itself as a word rather than using it for its meaning. For example, “Pulchritude is beauty, but the word pulchritude is rather ugly.” 
  1. For the names of ships. For example, “The USS Enterprise may have seemed to go where no one has gone before. However, the Ever Given tried the route never taken: a sharp right turn into the desert. It didn’t get far.”

  2. For certain scientific names. This includes genes (BRCA1), the first three letters of enzyme names (BamHI), and genus and species of living things (Cannabis sativa spontanea)—but not higher levels such as kingdom, phylum, class, order, or family (e.g., Cannabaceae). Sometimes the common name of something is also its scientific name—we seem to do this especially to things that could kill us, like Boa constrictor, Tyrannosaurus rex, and E. coli. In such cases, check your reference dictionary: if it allows a lower-case common use, you don’t need italics for that (“Have you seen my pet boa constrictor?”); otherwise, you do (“That man is an absolute E. coli”).

  3. In various ways in legal citations. This includes titles of articles and chapters, certain formal legal terms, and names of cases in running text—but not in citations. If you’re working with legal citations, you should have a copy of The Bluebook. If you’re not, count your blessings.

  4. For certain mathematical constants and variables. You may run into a few of these in ordinary text, such as e = mc², or the p value of a study’s results and the n of its subjects. But, look, mathematical text doesn’t stop at italics. It veers off into a wide variety of different type faces. If you’re editing equations, you’ll know all about that already. If you’re not, keep walking, eyes forward, whistling a happy tune.

  5. For stage directions. If you’re editing plays, you probably know this, but if you’re editing a book that just happens to quote from, say, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, it behooves you to know that it’s to be set like this:

Well may I get aboard! This is the chase:
I am gone for ever.
Exit, pursued by a bear

  1. For rhyme schemes. CMOS singles these out for special mention. For instance, you would use abab to indicate a quatrain of alternating rhymes, like this:

Roses are prickly,
Anthuriums are phallic;
Chicago is stickly
On matters italic.

An Easier Way to Check Italics

The list of rules and exceptions is daunting, and that’s just following one style manual. What if you then have to consider house styles and industry conventions or individual client preferences? And then there are all the situations where you shouldn’t use italics, such as terms that require italics only on first use and not using italics at the end of the sentence? Even for those with the sharpest eyes and memories, it’s hard to avoid tripping up.

Fortunately, there is technology out there that can help! PerfectIt for MS Word has a whole range of consistency checks, including italicization. Its regular checks include a list of common terms from Latin, French, and German that may or may not be italicized, depending on your style guide. It also has The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt built in. Turning on this feature adds to its regular italics check with hundreds of terms from Latin, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, and other languages that are likely to appear in an English-language context. They also include many representative instances where italics are required.

PerfectIt can’t reasonably check everything that’s in italics; literally everything you could italicize could be the name of some work or vessel: an epic poem titled too darn many, for instance, or a sailboat named Yup! But it covers quite a lot, and it teaches you the principles and reminds you to look for other similar instances.

Are you using PerfectIt yet? If not, download the free trial. If you are, make sure you have The Chicago Manual of Style upgrade—it’s available for all PerfectIt users with a subscription to CMOS.

Included for PerfectIt users with CMOS Online Subscriptions