The proper use of italics


The proper use of italics can be a vexed question for writers, especially when they’re starting out. We’re all familiar with the usage for a word needing emphasis, e.g. “That film was awful.” But there are many other instances where italics are required. and some of them are rather sneaky. Below is a list of the ones that might catch you out:

Use italics for:

1. Names of ships, planes, trains, cars and other vehicles, but not the names of types of vehicles, e. g. Ford, Boeing

Examples in order of the items listed above:

HMAS Sydney. (Note the HMAS part is not italicised.) Enola Gay, The Ghan, Ford Fiesta

2. Botanical names and the scientific names of animals

Examples: Acacia podalyriifolia, Homo sapiens

3. Names of films, musicals, plays, ballets

Examples: Pretty Woman, South Pacific, Hamlet, Swan Lake. NB Names of songs are not italicised, but are placed in quotation marks, e.g. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific

4. Long poems, TV and radio programs (but not the name of a series within the program)

Examples: The Waste Land; Midsomer Murders, Episode2, Series 9: “Dead Letters”

5. In legal parlance

Examples: Fairfax v Commissioner of Taxation – 1965, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) – 1992

 6. Books, newspapers, periodicals

Great Expectations, The Sun-Herald (but the Byron Shire Echo), the American Chicken Sexers’ Journal. (I made that one up — sorry.)

7. Letters, words or phrases cited, e.g. Cat is spelt with a c not a k.

8. Classical music compositions

Example: The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky (But not Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto in C Minor)

8. Works of art

Examples: the Mona Lisa and Blue Poles

9. Foreign words/phrases not yet in common English useage, e.g. nom de guerre but not Ciao.

This last is tricky. Anyone in Australia or the UK wishing to appear on top of their game would do well to buy a copy of The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. (This is not a complete dictionary but one which contains the preferred spelling for vexed words, such as air-conditioning — should it be air conditioning, airconditioning or air-conditioning? The ODW&E also deals with many of foreign words and phrases)

10. Technical terms or terms being defined

Example: A tallis slope (sometimes spelt talus) is the angle of repose formed by fallen rock fragments at the base of cliffs, crags, etc. See photograph below, which I couldn’t resist including to lighten an otherwise dry post.

Flowers on a tallis slope.

Flowers on a tallis slope.


About Danielle de Valera

Award-winning Australian author. Editor, mentor. manuscript assessor since 1992.
This entry was posted in advice about writing, advice for writers, Australian manuscript appraisers, Danielle De Valera, editing, fiction editing, indie publishing, manuscript appraisers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The proper use of italics

  1. Many thanks for the italics summary. I confess to being a struggler at times.


  2. Thanks for the feedback, Shaune. I must confess there were a couple there that surprised me, as I was doing the research.


  3. Alice-Anne Ellingham says:

    What about idioms in a manuscript? Example: “I can’t believe she left me a Dear John letter!” Italics, plain text, or quotation marks?


  4. PS Just thought, Alice: the correct answer to this might vary from country to country, and even within the same country, from publisher to publisher. I’m in Australia.


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