When To Use Italics

Introduction

Italics add emphasis to a word or phrase. They are also used for certain titles.

In the past, underlining was often used instead of italics. However, these days italics are preferred. The only time underlining still comes in handy is if you’re writing by hand (say on an exam). In that case, underlining is clearer than italics.

Titles

Titles of longer, independent works are italicized, whereas titles of shorter works are placed between quotation marks.

The following list provides some examples of each:

Italics and Quotation Marks

As you can see, the shorter works are often included in the longer ones (e.g., a song is part of a cd).

Titles That Start With “The”

If a newspaper or journal title starts with “the,” you don’t have to italicize and capitalize it:

Do you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal?

Place Names

Watch out for place names that are not actually part of the title. These should not be in italics:

the London Times

On the other hand, titles that include the place name should be entirely in italics:

the Sydney Morning Herald

Sacred Texts

Do not use italics or quotation marks for the Bible and the Qur’an (other acceptable spellings are Koran and Quran).

The same goes for their individual books and suras (when named and not numbered):

John 3:16 may well be the most famous verse in the Bible.

Note, however, that specific editions of the Bible are italicized:

New International Version
King James Bible

Other Punctuation

Be careful to distinguish between punctuation that is part of the title (and should be in italics) and punctuation that is part of the rest of the sentence:

We read Horton Hears a Who! And The Cat in the Hat.

The exclamation mark is part of the title whereas the period is not.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Use italics for the name of any kind of transportation device or vehicle.

Admiral Graf Spee (ship)
Enola Gay (airplane)
Voyager I (space probe)
Orient Express (train)
Lightning McQueen (car)

By contrast, names of brands (e.g., Toyota) are not italicized.

Words as Words

If you draw attention to a particular word or phrase you can put it in italics:

My favourite word is serendipity, followed closely by propinquity.

In tech babble, the term unicorn refers to a start-up venture that has been valued over 1 billion dollars.

You can also use quotation marks around such words—the main thing is to be consistent.

In addition to words, you can also draw attention to letters and numbers:

I always forget the second c in the word occasion.

He says the number 0 in his password symbolizes ignorance.

It’s less necessary to use italics when drawing attention to numbers, since they naturally stand out from the text.

Emphasis

You can use italics to add some emphasis. This is useful in dialogue, where you may want to capture what word was stressed by a speaker:

I did tell you!

However, most editors prefer to minimize the use of italics for this purpose. This is especially the case in academic writing.

Foreign Words

If you use a word or phrase from a different language, you should write it in italics.

He is such a shlimazel!

However, if you feel that the phrase has become part of the English language and will be readily understood then there’s no need for italics:

Don’t make a faux pas by eating too many hors d’oeuvres.

Obviously this is a judgment call. You will need to know both the language and your audience.

Formatting Numbers Properly

Introduction

This page summarizes a bunch of rules that relate to the use of numbers in academic writing. In general we have followed the guidelines set out by the Modern Language Association (MLA).

The Basics

The big question with numbers is whether to write them out or use numeric form:

Written out: twenty-two, nine, three million.

Numeric form: 2,000, $45, 99%.

To answer that question you should ask a few more specific questions:

  • How many words would it take to write out the number?
  • Is the number a specific measurement or statistic?
  • How many numbers are you using in a row?

As we answer these questions we’ll see that there are four criteria to consider: length, specificity, frequency, and clarity.

Length

The basic rule is that if you can write out a number in one or two words then there’s no need to use numeric form:

fifty-five
three hundred
six

By contrast, numbers that would take three or more words to write out should be written as numerals:

208
4,976
788

Note that hyphenated numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine are treated as one word. Also, round numbers higher than a million can be written in a combination of words and numerals:

Dinosaurs are said to have gone extinct 65 million years ago.

Measurements and Statistics

You can break the previous rule if you’re using certain kinds of numbers. These are numbers that are used for specific kinds of measurements, dates, statistics, and so forth. Here are some examples:

Dates and Times:
3:30 p.m.
1999
August 16

Literary references:
Chapter 9
Line 7
Matthew 5:2

Scores:
3-2

Stats:
28%
19 times out of 20

Monetary Amounts:
$47
$0.50

Addresses:
26 Hammock Street
V2J 8J3

Mathematical figures:
9.2
7xy

You might think of these numbers as more detailed or technical in character. In such cases you can usually use numerical form.

Again, there are always exceptions. For instance, if it’s easy to express a monetary amount in words you can do so (e.g., three cents, ninety dollars).

Frequency

The last thing to consider is how many numbers you are using in a particular passage. If you are using quite a few numbers you might use numerals even though the numbers are not technical in nature:

Out of the 23 students, 15 returned the permission slip, 6 forgot and 2 refused to have their parents sign anything for them.

However, this is very much a judgment call. If it’s easy enough to spell out the numbers then do so.

Clarity

Finally, you can sometimes mix written and numeric form to create clarity:

He made five 3-pointers in a row.

So to sum up what we’ve learned, spell out numbers of one or two words unless the numbers are more specific in nature, you’re using quite a few numbers in a row, or you need to provide clarity.

Additional Rules

Starting with a number

Don’t start a sentence with a numeral. Spell it out or change the word order:

Incorrect: 2,000 people rioted in the streets.
Correct: Two thousand people rioted in the streets.

Incorrect: 68% of the population voted in favour.
Correct: It appears that 68% of the population voted in favour.

Series

If you’re dealing with a range of numbers, don’t shorten the second number for numbers under a hundred:

7-8
82-83
56-61

For a range of numbers higher than 100 you should provide at least the last two digits of the second number:

158-77
1877-79

Of course it may often be necessary to provide more information:

1799-1801
722-988

Commas

You can add some clarity to large numbers by using a comma after every three digits:

2,000
15,229
1,000,000

However, this rule does not apply to specific numbers such as addresses or dates.

Roman Numerals

Roman numerals are not used as often as they used to be. For instance, in citing plays, references to act, scene, and line numbers are now generally given in arabic numerals (e.g., 2.3.15-16), though roman numerals are sometimes still allowed.

You will see roman numerals used for the pages of prefaces and prologues. They are also sometimes used to count the pages before proper pagination starts (e.g., pp. v-vii). When you’re dealing with such numerals, don’t change them to arabic form.

Roman numerals are also sometimes used in outlines (though this is not mandatory):

I. Introduction
II. The History of Photography
A. The Daguerrotype

In addition, roman numerals are used in some names:

Ivan IV
Elizabeth I

Dates

The MLA Handbook (8th ed.) recommends that in citations dates should be given in the format day-month-year:

20 Feb. 1988.

The rationale is that by not using commas you can maximize space. Who knew that one or two commas would be a big deal?

Elsewhere you can use a different format if you like. The main thing is to be consistent. A common way of writing dates is month-day-year:

August 3, 1766

Note that if your sentence keeps going after such a date you’ll have to provide another comma after the year.

The time of day can be given in different ways:

14:28
2:28 p.m.

As long as you’re consistent, either of these formulations is acceptable.

Note that if you use the expression o’clock, the number is usually spelled out too (e.g., five o’clock).

How Roman Numerals Work

The Rules

If you have no clue how roman numerals work, here is a quick overview. Let’s start with some basic numbers:

i = 1
ii = 2
iii = 3
v = 5
x = 10
l = 50
c = 100
d = 500
m = 1000

You’ll see these in uppercase or lowercase form.

By combining the numbers you can make other numbers. One way to do so is by placing a smaller number in front of a larger number. The effect is similar to subtraction:

iv = 4 (think 5-1)
xl = 40 (think 50-10)

On the other hand, if you place the smaller number after the larger number then you’re adding the two:

vii = 7 (think 5+2)
lxxxii = 82 (think 50+30+2)

You can also combine these two methods:

xcii = 92 (100-10+2)

There are a few more rules for adding and subtracting, but hopefully this clarifies the basic principles.

Rules for Capitalization

Introduction

Capitalization adds some order and clarity to your writing. Even though people often drop capitals in texts and tweets, proper capitalization will make your writing look more professional.

First Word

Capitalize the first word of each sentence:

We watched the children playing on the beach.

The tennis ball doesn’t bounce much.

This including quotations that are full sentences:

She said, “Watch out! The oven is on.”

Proper Nouns

Capitalize all proper nouns. A proper noun, as you might recall, is a specific person, place, or thing:

Mary and Sam visited the cathedral in Albi.

In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec.

Note that some parts of foreign names are not capitalized (the de in Samuel de Champlain).

Proper Adjectives

Capitalize words derived from proper nouns:

Portuguese (from Portugal)

Freudian (from Freud)

Cubist (from Cubism)

There is one major exception: the word biblical (from Bible) is not capitalized.

Historical Periods

Adjectives derived from historical time periods often cause problems. Take the word Romantic. If you are talking about the Romantic period in literature (roughly 1789-1832), it makes sense to use a capital (though you will also see it without). If you are talking about Valentine’s Day, a capital is not necessary.

Even trickier are modern and modernist (related to Modernism), and by extension postmodern. These are often not capitalized, even when they refer specifically to something from the modernist period. The reason is that they are so often used in a more generic sense that they’ve become common adjectives.

A lot then depends on the conventions of the field you’re working in. For that reason, everyone should write medieval, whereas you will come across both Renaissance and renaissance as adjective forms. In fact, the latter is mandatory for more distant derivatives, such as when we speak of a renaissance man, someone who has a broad skillset.

So take the time to become familiar with your field, think about how generic the reference is, and, above all, be consistent.

God

Treat the God of monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a proper noun:

I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

On the other hand, if you’re talking about a specific deity from a pantheon of gods, use lowercase form:

When it rained, their god was said to be spitting.

Venus was the goddess of love.

You have more freedom when it comes to pronouns derived from God. It used to be more common to capitalize such pronouns out of respect:

God cares for all His creatures.

This is optional, however, even within some religious circles.

Titles

If a title precedes a name it is usually capitalized:

Doctor Hagen gave me a clean bill of health.

Turkish President Erdogan accused European leaders of fascism.

However, when titles are by themselves they are only capitalized if they are of very important people (e.g., a President or Pope):

The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.

The Turkish President accused European leaders of fascism.

It’s up to you to determine what constitutes high rank, but generally only political and religious leaders receive special treatment. In addition, even these special titles are not usually capitalized in the plural:

Recent popes have taken a more liberal attitude.

Relationship Words

Words that describe relationships should be capitalized only if they come right before the name or take the place of the name:

Aunt Hilda sang horribly out of tune.

We all hoped Mother would enjoy her birthday.

In all other cases relationship words do not need capitals:

Her father was late as usual.

Titles of Creative Works

If you add a title to an essay, poem, sculpture, or any sort of creative work, it’s customary to capitalize important words:

Hypotaxis and Parataxis in John Donne’s “No Man is an Island” Passage (essay title)

Blind Man Sitting at the Corner of the Round Table (sculpture)

For more information about how to determine which words deserve capitalization, see our page on titles in the section on MLA guidelines.

No Capitals

Finally, let’s review some instances when capitals are not necessary.

Seasons

The seasons of the year (winter, spring, summer, fall) are not capitalized.

Subjects of Study

While the title of a specific course is capitalized (e.g., Economics 101), general references to an area of study are not:

She was taking an accounting course.

The exception is language courses, since languages are always capitalized:

I love my French course.

Directions

The directions of the compass are not capitalized:

If you head south, you will come to the main highway.

However, if a direction is used as a place name you can capitalize it:

They are moving to the Pacific Northwest.

The East is a much weaker conference.

Some Brand Names

Whereas most brand names are capitalized (like Proper Nouns), some brands have become common words in the language:

Could you pass me a kleenex?

He drives the zamboni.

Conclusion

The English language has fairly precise rules for capitalization, but every so often you’ll have to make a tough choice. Hopefully this page will make that choice an informed one.