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Italics vs. Quotation Marks

Up until a few decades ago, writers had two choices: write in longhand or use a typewriter. Typewriters had one font. The characters were one size only. If you wanted to cut and paste, you needed scissors and adhesive tape.

Writing in italics was all but impossible, except for professional printing companies.

Thanks to today’s computer keyboards, we now have access to italics. So we need a sensible plan for when to use them and when to use quotation marks. Here is a formula we recommend: Put the title of an entire composition in italics. Put the title of a short work—one that is or could be part of a larger undertaking—in quotation marks.

By “composition” we mean a creative, journalistic, or scholarly enterprise that is whole, complex, a thing unto itself. This includes books, movies, plays, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, websites, music albums, operas, musical theater, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art.

The following sentence illustrates the principle: Richard Burton performed the song “Camelot” in the 1960 Broadway musical Camelot. Although the word is the same, “Camelot” the song takes quotation marks because it’s part of a larger work—namely, a full-length show called Camelot.

Italics are also widely used with names of ships, trains, and planes, e.g., the Titanic, the 20th Century Limited, the Spirit of St. Louis. (Note: with ships, do not italicize prefixes such as USS or HMS.)

Quotation marks are customary for components, such as chapter titles in a book, individual episodes of a TV series, songs on a music album, and titles of articles or essays in print or online.

Titles of plays, long and short, are generally italicized. Titles of poems and shorter works of fiction are generally in quotation marks. Long poems, short films, and the extended stories known as “novellas” are a gray area; some people italicize the titles, others put them in quotation marks.

You won’t go wrong with this policy: For a full-blown composition, put the title in italics. For something smaller and less ambitious, e.g., a short story as opposed to a sprawling novel, put the title in quotation marks. That’s the long and the short of it.


Pop quiz
Place italics and quotation marks where they should go.

1. Elvis Presley sang Love Me Tender in the movie Love Me Tender.
2. Chapter 4 of Beautiful Ruins is called The Smile of Heaven.
3. Who sang God Save the Queen on the HMS Bounty?


Pop quiz answers
1. Elvis Presley sang “Love Me Tender” in the movie Love Me Tender.
2. Chapter 4 of Beautiful Ruins is called “The Smile of Heaven.”
3. Who sang “God Save the Queen” on the HMS Bounty? (no points if you italicized HMS)

Posted on Monday, June 16, 2014, at 10:39 pm


19 Responses to “Italics vs. Quotation Marks”

  1. Matt S. says:

    Is this italicizing to be limited to when the subject name is being “set up”, or tediously every time it is used from now on? Why only certain proper nouns (ships, etc.) and not all proper nouns?

    The ship Toastless can be seen from the building Superior Glass.

    (The terms the ship and the building are setting up a space where the reader will understand an excessive noun or phrase to be the name of the otherwise unspecified object.)

    If I have to italics every “Titanic” in a book about the Titanic, I’ll go crazy.

    • The italicized title of anything must maintain the italics with every mention.

      We cannot say how or why the convention of italicizing certain proper nouns rather than all proper nouns came about, but really now, would you want to be known as Matt Smith?

  2. Frank says:

    The emergence of computer editing software has truly made some differences in our writing habits and it has also caused us to question some grammar rules. Great post, definitely helpful for everyone who writes for a living.

  3. Nori K. says:

    My understanding was that, the first time you use, say, a term of art, you set it off in quotation marks. For example, you might write that a “record of survey” is a document in which a surveyor records material discrepancies with earlier surveys. When you use the term after that, my understanding is that you don’t keep using the quotation marks. For example, if I were writing a report on records of survey, I would drop the quotation marks after the first explanation, as I have here. I wanted to confirm that on your website, but I didn’t see this type of situation referenced under “quotation marks.” Would you please reply, so that my records of survey are correctly punctuated?

    • We do not address this either in our book or on our website as it is fairly specialized, and there is no general agreement among references on the approach. However, we did find the following items, which may be helpful:

      The Chicago Manual of Style refers to a “key term,” which should be italicized on its first occurrence only. That could apply to record of survey.

      Perhaps more helpful is the Oxford Guide to Style which says, “Use quotation marks to enclose an unfamiliar word or phrase, or one to be used in a technical sense. The effect is similar to that of highlighting the term through italics …
      Most often quotation marks should be used only at the first occurrence of the word or phrase in a work; thereafter it may be considered to be fully assimilated.”

  4. Nancy H. says:

    I’m editing the small, ten-page annual yearbook, of a small chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution organization. The chapter reads aloud three famous quotes during the openings of their monthly meetings, “The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag”, The American’s Creed”, and “The Star-Spangled Banner”. For convenience, the words are printed in the booklet. I can not find a rule for quotation marks enclosing the whole pledge, the whole creed, or the whole song. Thank you for any assistance you can give me.

    • There is no generally agreed-upon “rule” among the leading grammar references that apply to this particular circumstance. Options include using a block indent, enclosing the quotes in quotation marks, and italicizing. We recommend choosing a style and being consistent.

  5. Jaime N. says:

    Hello, I’m writing a book in which the character is telling the story of her life. Would I use quotation marks on everything that she says while she is telling the story? Or would I stop once the story got going? On one hand she is telling of her thoughts and feelings but on the other is seems a little much to have so many quotation marks. Advice?

  6. Leslie Snipes says:

    How does one use quotation marks when quoting something that contains a list? For example, where do the quotation marks go if I want to quote this?

    There are different schools of thought about years and decades. The following examples are all in widespread use:
    the 1990s
    the 1990′s
    the ’90s
    the 90′s

    From here:

    • It might be best to place the quote in paragraph form instead of a vertical list. says, “There are different schools of thought about years and decades. The following examples are all in widespread use: the 1990s, the 1990′s, the ’90s, the 90′s.”
      One could also use italics, or even bold, to set off the examples if quotation marks are distracting.

  7. Jack S. says:

    I have something that isn’t very clear for quotation marks:

    If I said that a girl was my friend.

    And another person went on a big rant about how I should treat my girlfriend with respect.

    And I said,

    Look, saying the girl is my “friend” is not the same as saying she is my “girlfriend.”

    This was not the exact conversation but that’s how I used the quotation marks. It was then said that I used them incorrectly. I’ve looked on several grammar sites but I cannot find that precise rule for that kind of quotation mark scenario. I was wondering if you could tell me if I used it correctly?

    • We assume you are asking about the use of quotation marks in a written dialogue, even though it sounds like you’re describing an oral conversation. Your use of the word friend fits closely enough within the description of our Rule 5a of “Quotation Marks“: Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage.

      Therefore, your use of quotation marks is acceptable. You could also have placed the words friend and girlfriend in italics.

  8. Lacey says:

    What about underlining? If my fifth grade students are writing short stories, would they underline their work since they are writing them by hand?

  9. Tonya says:

    What about a list (as in an order of service) where there are song titles, Sermon titles, and general actions. Like:

    Prelude Pianist
    “Shine, Jesus Shine” Choir
    Welcome Pastor
    “Wise Men Still Seek Him” Pastor

  10. Bethany says:

    I understand that unfamiliar/technical terms are usually enclosed in quotation marks the first time they are used. However, would you do the same in this situation when it is preceded by “the word” twice?

    Many times, people use the word “church” to refer to a building where people gather to worship God. The Bible also uses the word church as the name for God’s family.

    • Yes, the quotation marks should be used again. Since the word church might not be considered an unfamiliar or technical term, it could also be italicized instead of enclosed in quotation marks.

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