What do you mean, in italics?

Well that’s annoying. I wanted to use italics in my title and WordPress won’t let me. Maybe if I upgrade to the paid version… meanwhile I’ll put quotes in this post, which I’d normally have italicised, in purple so the original italics still show up.

The word italics comes from Latin. The print style was named for the Venetian printer who used it first. The adoption of italic fonts has a fascinating history that leads the procrastinating blogger down many Googling byways. Do explore them one wet Sunday afternoon.

We use italics for emphasis. Just as some people wave their hands about more than others, so do some authors, often putting their italics into their characters’ mouths to avoid seeming too histrionic themselves. Jane Austen, brought up to discreet deportment and quiet speech, can be vicious with italics:

italics p & P 2 (2)
Pride and Prejudice, Penguin edition, Australia 2008

Nowadays writers are advised against adverbs. It would never do for Yazz, in Benardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, to think something “sarcastically”, but Evaristo suggests sarcasm with italics: once she’s graduated and working, she’s going to sell her house, correction, their house, which is worth a small fortune thanks to Mum’s gentrification of Brixton  By the way that’s not my missing full stop – Evaristo uses punctuation sparingly. But she relishes italics, as when Yazz’s Mum forbears to mention The Boyfriend, glimpsed when he dropped her off in his car. So much suspicion, pride, worry, judgement conveyed by italics and a couple of capital letters. 

My italics for the title acknowledge someone else wrote Girl, Woman, Other (shame). Fortunately Evaristo isn’t referring to the film The Boyfriend or confusion might arise. At least I’m assuming she isn’t, I’ve only just started it. Could be a bookblogger trap…

Authors may choose italics to differentiate between a character’s inner thoughts or dreams and what they say aloud, and also to differentiate timelines or points of view, clarifying them for the reader. Unhelpfully, I can’t find examples on my shelves now. I hope one  turns  up before this blog post goes out. I do find whole pages and paragraphs of italics hard to read and wish authors with split timelines/narrators would find some other way round the problem. I definitely read one recently. Maybe I threw it out for that reason.

Italics may be used for a recurring phrase, reminding us of what’s at stake or a character’s obsession. Olive Kitteridge‘s visit to her son in New York is punctuated by the neighbour’s parrot repeating Praise the Lord. Italics differentiate a letter or document from the rest of the text, or economically summarise occasions when the same thing was repeated. These examples are from The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, whose short prologue and epilogue are also italicised.

italics F langton 2
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin, 2019
italics Frannie langton
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin 2019

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, stereotypical histrionic foreigner, lives and breathes italics.

Italics Poirot
Harper Collins, 2013

You’ll notice Poirot’s italicised French, like the Latin in the previous example. Italics of “foreign” words could mean three things: i) you do know what this means, dear readers ii) work it out from the context or iii) here’s something to look up, dunce. Here’s an extraordinarily basic example from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Society feels…the highest respectability is of much less importance than the possession of a good chef.”

Indie authors decide from themselves how much to italicise “foreign” words, preferably with professional editorial advice, and publishers have varying house styles. The trend is towards italicising less. Some authors reasonably object to “othering”. When words their characters use in daily discourse are italicised, it has the effect of making them suddenly shout “Look at this exotic word!” mid-flow. This article argues, with entertaining, informative examples, why such an approach  simply won’t do in a world where all cultures and idioms deserve equal respect. I found it on Ask a Book Editor (Facebook) and reposted it on Writers for Diversity (Facebook too). On both sites it elicited a lively, helpful thread with much food for thought. 

A rule of thumb is to explain meaning either directly or through context, unless you know the words have been incorporated into the language you’re writing in (check a good dictionary if unsure). Here’s The Song of Achilles, elegantly whisking the reader over the obstacle, and another example from The Braid by Laetitia Colombani, itself translated from French, which I think could have omitted the explanation as the context is clear:

Italics Achilles
The Song of Achilles, Bloomsbury 2017

The Braid, Picador 2020
In The Magic Carpet, about five families of different heritages, I didn’t italicise pakoras because I expect my readers are familiar with Indian (umbrella term) food. I did italicise and explain the musical instrument names the first time because the children they’re given to didn’t know them yet either. Afterwards those words are in Roman print, not to break the flow any more than necessary. I may reduce the italics more, since reading the article I refer to above.

Italics pakoras MC
The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019
italics MC tili dagga
The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019

I’ve learnt something from writing this blog that’s probably obvious but needed spelling out for me. Too many italics over-egg the pudding. Like flouncy curtains or thick make-up, CAPITALS or exclamation marks!!! Flicking through my books I found the writers I most admire use hardly any. I’m not saying the examples above are bad, the books they come from are wonderful in their different ways or I wouldn’t include them. But less is definitely more. I suspect my Novel 3 has rather a lot. Inside I’m thinking: is that why it hasn’t been snapped up by a publisher yet? 

©Jessica Norrie 2020

36 thoughts on “What do you mean, in italics?

      1. Jessica, newcomer here courtesy of Roger’s link. I use italics and bold often in my posts. Usually, I use italics to highlight quoted material and bold to highlight titles of books, articles and movies. Sometimes, I will use both to highlight a theme quote – emphasizing if you read anything, read this.

        I was also taught not to start paragraphs with “And” or “But,” yet I ignore that rule, too. All the best. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hello Keith, nice to “meet” you. I’m not sure my post is about rules, or even guidelines. It’s more a summary of my observations. Subconsciously I was probably also aiming my comments mainly at the authors of novels (like myself) where bold would certainly be out of place and italics should I think be kept for special occasions. I think for bloggers and writers of non fiction the “rules” if any are a bit different. Bloggers especially seek and then want to keep attention for shorter pieces that are likely to be read on a phone or other small screen; therefore anything they can do to break up the text is a good idea (like Roger with his many images). But yes, rules are made to be broken. And often are. I’ll even end with a preposition, now I’ve worked out how to.


      1. I must admit I don’t use that degree of precision. If a foreign word or phrase is encountered in English frequently enough (e.g., savoir faire, menage a trois, Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist) I don’t italicize. One clue is whether a word is picked up as a spelling error by Word or other spell checker. (Apologies for no diacritics.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No need to worry about the diacritics – I’m not sure WordPress has caught up with them yet, for comments anyway. (If I want to use them I usually copy and paste from Word.) On your wider point, I think italics matter less when using standard European language terms like the ones you mention. It’s a question of personal taste and style, and for me less is more. But it does seem reasonable to me when people don’t want their languages /cultures viewed as minority, exotic or other and putting them in italics can have that effect. The article I quoted goes into it more fully and did open my eyes. Thanks for your thoughts – this post has raised a lot more interest than I expected!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. hi Michael – I have no idea why your valued comment went to my spam box, some unilateral WordPress decision no doubt. Always good to hear. I’m sure italics use varies according to different languages so no wonder some new to you!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi jenanita. It may depend on the WordPress theme you use, but what I do is to go to the capital A at the top of the menu when I’m drafting a post, click on the down arrow next to it, highlight the section i want to colour and choose a colour. Much the same as when you’re writing a Word document in fact. Hope that helps and thanks for your comment and the reblog.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I tend to use sparingly in my fiction but use to differentiate reviews from other text when posting promotions with reviews. But on reflection seeing its use in the books I have read does help highlight foreign words or thoughts rather than speech very usefully.. I have pressed for Monday evening.. something to think about as always Jessica..x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Sally. My post is mainly about fiction but I think for a blog such as yours you have to find ways of differentiating the many sections of text and italics come in useful for that. We’ll see what your readers think on Monday!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think as long as you keep being sparing in mind, that’s good enough. If you publish with a traditional house, they’ll sort it out. And the foreign words debate is an interesting one which has certainly changed recently. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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