The italic typeface, modelled on 16th-century Italian handwriting, is not strictly punctuation, but it has become the preferred way to express emphasis and titles in publishing. Italics can be used to distinguish certain words from others within the text.

  1. Use them to mark the actual titles of:
    1. books, artworks, TV programs, movies, musical works, etc.
      • Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite
      • Programs on ABC TV tonight include: Lateline, Compass and The Bill.
      • Michaelangelo’s David
      • Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
      • Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore
    2. the names of vehicles/vessels (but not brand names)
      • The R.M.S. Titanic
      • The Orient Express
      • HMAS Sydney
      • The Space Shuttle Challenger
      • BUT: The Holden Commodore; Boeing 747; Ford Corvette.
      Note: for vessels, never apply italics to the word “the”, even if it forms part of the title. Similarly, do not italicise any prefixed letters like HMS or U.S.S. (this does not apply where the prefix forms part of the title of an art form). Also, associated punctuation should never be italicised unless it forms part of the actual title:
      • Have you been to see Master and Commander?
      • It was HMS Hood ’s last voyage.
      • This was Seinfeld ’s sixth season.
      • BUT: Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
  2. Use them to mark foreign words and phrases that are not commonly used in English:
    • Text messaging has become de rigueur for teenagers.
    • The school’s motto is Sapare Aude.
    • A lawyer will always advise his client: Si fecisti nega!
    • He unveiled his pièce de résistance.
    Note: it is sometimes a fine line deciding whether a foreign phrase is commonly understood, and it may be dependent on your audience or subject matter. Still, very common terms should be left un-italicised:
    • It was a fait accompli …
    • He lived in a cul-de-sac.
    • He was master of the double entendre.
  3. Use them when expressing a word as a word (a job sometimes done by quotation marks):
    • The word basically is overused, and should be avoided.
    • The writer had used four that’s in the one sentence, so the editor suggested removing three of them.
    • Never use affect when you mean effect.
  4. Use them sparingly to emphasise words (overuse will soon negate the effect):
    • Italics should not be overused to create emphasis.
    • “I don’t really care what she thinks!” he said to his friends.
    • I just knew that was going to happen.
    Note: when an entire sentence or short paragraph is printed in italics (as a typographical device), words that would normally be italicised are swapped to regular face: “We have reports that RMS Titanic has struck an iceberg and foundered in the North Atlantic.”
  5. Italics are useful for highlighting onomatopoeic words:
    • Meow, said the cat.
    • Then, the bear spied me ... Grrr!
    • The coin hit the floor with a pling!
    • Bzzz! That sound told her spring was here.

Back to top …