A Guide to Italics and When to Use Them.

Italics are designed to emphasise certain words in written text. Tonally, they can be used to reflect a change in intonation, highlight contrast or even to denote sarcasm. They can also be used to make names and titles stand out in a sentence, instead of using quotation marks.


An italic font should be used sparingly, so as not to overwhelm your writing with varying levels of emphasis. In this guide, you’ll learn more about the italic definition, how it functions in typography and when best to use the font style.

Old parchment paper with cursive Italian handwriting.

What is italic font?


Italic font is a slanted type style that’s commonly used to contrast against the default ‘upright’ Roman type or bold. The typeface is inspired by cursive Italian script and was originally designed to recreate the flowing look of calligraphy and handwriting.


The story goes that, in the 15th century, Italian printer Aldus Manutius asked punchcutter Francesco Griffo da Bologna to create a new, cursive type for his upcoming series of books. His goal was to cut paper costs and appeal to his audiences of writers, academics and learnt government officials, who customarily used a delicate, slanting handwriting style for their work. 


These Italian scholars and their work gave the italic font its name. They went on to inspire countless reiterations of italics, until the typeface eventually landed on our pages and screens.



The purpose of the italic font style


The contrast between the italic ‘slanted’ font type and the standard Roman ‘upright’ type creates a natural emphasis. In some cases, italics are used in a similar way to bold or underlined types, to simply accent or highlight certain words, phrases or headings.


However, the italic font style is more commonly used in academic writing for formatting references. For example, it’s used to set apart the titles of whole published books, films, plays or other works within a sentence or reference section. This is rather than use quotation marks - like you might for the titles of articles, legal cases or poems within a collection. 


These latter examples are not italicised, as they’re often considered as parts of whole works. An example could be Sylvia Plath’s famous poem ‘Daddy’, which was published in her posthumous collection Ariel. Or, Allen Ginsburg’s poem ‘Howl’, as found on his collection Howl and Other Poems


Likewise, articles published on periodical or web pages are often use capitalisation and commas, while the publication is in italic text. Take ‘Titanic Sinks Four Hours After Hitting Iceburg’, from the 16th April 1912 edition of The New York Times


Examples of when to use italics.  

You can use italics to convey a range of different meanings and for a variety of purposes. But knowing when to use them makes all the difference when crafting the structure and tone of your writing.


You can use an italic type font to:


  • Place emphasis on a word or phrase. Example: ‘Are you going to wear that?’, as opposed to ‘are you going to wear that?’.
  • Highlight urgency or importance. Example: ‘The WWF estimates there are less than 200 Amur leopards left in the wild’.
  • Show sarcasm or irony. Example: ‘Oh wow, that’s a great idea’, as opposed to ‘Oh wow, that’s a great idea’.
  • Reference whole works. These include:
    • Books
    • Films
    • Television shows
    • Albums
    • Video games
    • Plays
    • Publications (magazines, newspapers etc.)
    • Works of art
    • Software programs.
  • Foreign words used in a sentence. This rule is typically true for words that may not appear in an English dictionary. Example: “He discovered he simply didn’t care. ‘Oh well, c’est la vie’, he thought.”


When not to use italics.

Italics shouldn’t be used when referencing things that are a part of greater (whole) works. For example, if following the above italic referencing style, you shouldn’t italicise the names of:


  • TV episodes - Italicise the TV programme.
  • Poems - Italicise the poetry collection or publication.
  • Articles - Italicise the website or publication.
  • Songs - Italicise the album.


Aside from referencing, there aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to where and what to italicise. However, you may want to keep in mind that too many changes in emphasis and font type can become overwhelming for the reader. It’s best practice to use italics sparingly, so they have a greater effect when you do.



Italics: A matter of style.


Besides considering moderation when using italics, house style also dictates when and how the font should be used. For example, some publications - such as the Guardian newspaper - prefer not to use italics and instead defer to using standard Roman when referencing titles. Some may also prefer to place titles in single quotation marks or even bold them.


Examples of differing house styles:


  • Italics: ‘I recently read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.’
  • Standard Roman: ‘I recently read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.’
  • Apostrophes: ‘I recently read ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.’
  • Bold text: ‘I recently read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.’


Note how only one stylistic choice is used at a time - for example, titles aren’t bold italic - unless you really want to highlight its importance. Also note that author names do not need to be made italic or bold.


As long as a title is discernible from the standard text, there are no general rules for italic font for every publication. The important thing is to ensure you’re following the correct house style, following any referencing guidance provided to you and considerate of reader accessibility.



Common types of italic fonts.


  • English Vernacular. This italic style is characterised by its long and thin ‘exit trails’ and curved base lines - rather than angled.
    • E.g. Pickled Cucumbers
  • Chancery Italics. Possibly what’s considered the ‘classic’ italic font. It’s known for its sweeping motion and thick and thin strokes that recreate the look of calligraphy.
    • E.g. Numerous Monkeys
  • French Old. As you would expect from a Parisian type, this italic font boasts bold flicks and curling calligraphy.
    • E.g. Quality Jams
  • Modern. Combining the best of both classic handwriting fluidity and more precise lines.
    • E.g. Prised Vegetables




Italics FAQS.


Can you use italics in formal writing?

Yes, though it will depend on the house style of the publication you’re writing for, or the required referencing style you need to use. Generally, using italics is the standard method of both providing emphasis and referencing titles of whole works in academic and formal writing.


How do you emphasise words without using italics?

If you don’t want to use an italic font, try bolding or underlining words instead. You may find that this works better for your purpose. However, in some cases, you may find emphasis can only be created with the use of italics. For example, when conveying sarcasm: ‘I would have never thought of that’ versus ‘I would have never thought of that’.


Is cursive the same as italics?

While some cursive fonts often appear as italic as standard, the two typefaces aren’t the same. For example, cursive fonts are usually joined and naturally italicised, as they follow the style of traditional cursive handwriting. Italics, however, are, of course, italicised, but they are not always joined.

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