a matter of italics

Are you glad I’m not talking about commas again today?  🙂

A while ago (last year?), I read the following in a review of a novel:  “[The author] also vastly overuses italics and is inconsistent in their use (sometimes the italics represent thoughts, yet other times a character will deliver one line of dialogue in italics and another in normal print, often on the same page or even in the same paragraph).”

Overall, it was a positive review, and I’m sure the author is pleased with it.  On the other hand, the editor ought to be a bit annoyed, seeing fault found where no fault exists.

Oh, wait — the editor is annoyed.

These uses of italics are not wrong.  It is not ‘over-using’ italics to use them in all the ways that are correct and necessary in the writing.  To say so is like saying that, if you use commas in compound sentences, you shouldn’t use them to separate items in a list as well.

Standard uses of italics include foreign words, strong emphasis, character thoughts (this one is optional — there’s no rule of any sort for how to indicate character thoughts — although it is a very common usage, and less confusing than using quotation marks as with dialogue)… and, of course, titles of books and movies and periodicals and music albums, plus the names of ships (yes, even starships).  Nowhere is there any rule (or even guideline) that says an author should pick just one of these uses and ignore all the others.

Any professional book reviewer ought to know these things.


About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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11 Responses to a matter of italics

  1. nancyrae4 says:

    Actually, I found this blog reassuring:) I use italics for character thoughts, and I think they work. However, you comma blog filled me with terror. I must brush up on using the little critters. *cringes*

    Liked by 1 person

    • svrtnsse says:

      Yeah, the punctuation rants scare me a little bit as well. I’m usually just winging it and hoping it works and thinking that I’ll fix it in the next draft.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Key words: “next draft.” You’re still working on whatever it is you’re writing, instead of deciding that readers don’t really care about all that “grammar” nonsense anyway and leaving the FIRST draft as the FINAL draft, too. However, I’ll be easing up on the punctuation rants. I’m editing again, so my next posts will probably be about how much fun I’m having re-reading one of my clone’s novels.


    • It isn’t meant to be scary. My tirades are only directed at those authors who PUBLISH their work without making sure it’s clean first. No way I’d expect any work-in-progress to be perfect. (I’m an editor and proofreader, remember. If every author got it all right in the first draft, there’d be no need for people like me.) I simply feel it is incredibly disrespectful of the audience for any author to throw gibberish on Amazon and expect readers to pay for it when it hasn’t even gone through a basic spelling and grammar check like the ones every word processing program contains.

      Commas aren’t scary; they’re gentle creatures who just want to be loved.


  2. svrtnsse says:

    You mention using italics for strong emphasis. Is this a strict rule or is it optional? My personal feeling is that it’s a bit cheap to rely on typography to make something stand out. I feel you should be able to convey the importance of something through just the words you’re using and not by changing the way they look. For example, I wouldn’t use bold face to emphasize that someone is being very loud.
    Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me being a snob though. I’m sure there are situations where I could put italics to good use – I just haven’t felt the need for it yet. I guess if used sparingly the effect will be greater once they’re actually used?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is not required that italics be used for emphasis, but if that emphasis is not clear from context — sometimes the words alone cannot convey it — italics should be used rather than, say, all caps or boldface. That part is a rule. (And yes, I am aware that it is not always possible to use italics online, but that’s a problem with the web sites in question.)


  3. MishaBurnett says:

    In my Book Of Lost Doors series I use italics solely for the thoughts and conversation of one specific character. My narrator has two distinct personalities, James and Catskinner, and I wanted a way to instantly inform the reader which one was talking at any given time.

    At first I considered using a different typeface for Catskinner, but I had problems formatting an embedded font that would look the same on different e-reader platforms, and I couldn’t ever get the embedded font to scale properly when the reader changes the size of the font. So I gave up on that idea and instead used italics for Catskinner–all of his thoughts and dialogue are in italics (with no capital letters) and that’s the only thing I use them for in those books.

    As a consequence, I realized how often I had used italics for emphasis in other character’s dialogue. With that technique off limits, I started recasting the sentences to indicate emphasis by word order and punctuation. (Yes, I use em dashes and ellipses in dialogue a lot. I refused to apologize for that. It’s how people talk.) I think my dialogue has gotten better as a result.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I use em dashes and ellipses in dialogue a lot. I refused to apologize for that. It’s how people talk.” Whatever gave you the impression that I think such punctuation in dialogue is wrong? I use them, too. As you say, it’s how people talk. I get irked when someone uses one in place of the other — a dash when the speaker just trails off instead of stopping abruptly, for example — but that’s not the same thing.


      • MishaBurnett says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that you had spoken out against those punctuation marks, I was observing that the kind of people who complain about “misused” italics also often complain about “improper” punctuation in dialogue.


  4. bwfoster78 says:


    I agree with you most of the time. No so much for this topic.

    First, while each of the instances you outlined aren’t grammatically incorrect, heavy use of italics is not easy on the eyes. I’ve skipped passages in books because they consisted of page after page of italics.

    In that sense, you absolutely can “overuse” italics even if the usage is grammatically correct.

    Second, again while it’s not grammatically incorrect to use italics for emphasis, there are a lot of writers and editors who feel that, if you have to add artificial emphasis to a word, you’re not using the right word. When I see the like in a book, my first thought is, “amateur.”

    To mix, as the book in question apparently did, italics inside dialogue while using the same to indicate thought creates possibility for confusion on the part of the reader.

    To my way of thinking, all the reviewers complaints seem valid. I probably would have said the same thing.




  5. Italics, commas and brackets are all things I just love to splatter all over my writing (and then for some unknown reason, I seem to withhold them when they are actually needed). Thank god nobody reads first drafts! I do also agree it seems a little over the top to make the use of italics one of the major points of the review. It should be a side note, at best really. Glad to hear the review was positive overall though.


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