Italics are slanted letters that can be used for a variety of purposes in writing. Back when manuscripts were written by hand or typewriter, it was common for authors and editors to manually underline words or phrases that should be italicized later on by the typesetters. This was a matter of expediency—typewriters didn’t have italic letters, and it’s generally difficult to tell apart italicized handwriting from normal handwriting. These days, however, computers have rendered underlines almost entirely redundant, since writers can simply italicize anything that needs to be right from the start.
Italics have several handy uses:
Emphasis: This is perhaps the most common use of italics in stories. When people converse, they use all sorts of variations in their tone, pitch, volume, and pronunciation to convey subtle nuances of meaning. Using italics to indicate that a speaker has emphasized a particular word is one method writers have of mimicking these otherwise un-type-able subtleties of speech. Italics can completely alter our understanding of a character’s frame of mind and intent without changing the story’s wordcount at all. Compare, for example, this line of dialog:
“I can’t believe you did that!”
with this line of dialog:
“I can’t believe you did that!”
It’s the exact same line, but it has two different meanings. Such is the usefulness of italics. Be warned, however, that too-frequent use of this trick will grow tiresome—try to only use it when the emphasis is really important, just to be safe.
Marking foreign language: If you use a foreign language in your story, it is common to italicize the word or phrase in order to highlight that it is, in fact, another language, rather than an unfamiliar or appropriated English word. This is applicable whether the foreign language is a real-life language or one you’ve created for your book. Once you’ve italicized a word once, you generally don’t need to italicize it again if you don’t want to. Examples:
“One of my favorite words in Russian is pochemuchik. It literally translates as ‘why-ling,’ referring to a child that constantly asks the question, ‘Why?’ I have a pochemuchik of my own at home, and it’s nice to have a succinct word to describe him.”
The sorceress raised her hands and shouted in the language of magic: “Durakin lo-tuma fei!”
Marking words referred to as words: A word is simultaneously two things—it is the item, person, creature, action, trait, or concept that the word represents, and it is also a simple word. For example:
The castle loomed over the tiny town, always covering the villagers in its shadow.
The word castle has six letters.
See what I mean? In the first example, we’re speaking of the concept that the word castle represents; in the second example, we’re talking about the word itself, the collection of letters before our eyes. In such cases, as you can see, it is common to italicize the word to distinguish it from the concept it represents.
Note: the same applies to letters referred to as letters (the letter A).
Titles: The titles of books, movies, television shows, radio programs, plays, operas, ballets, long poems, long musical pieces, podcasts, blogs, comics, comic strips, newspapers, magazines, journals, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other works of art or prose should be italicized. Basically, if it is something that someone has created and given a title, that title should be italicized.
In many issues of Batman, you can see that Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed as they were leaving a showing of The Mark of Zorro.
|Yes, this is from Batman/Superman, not Batman. It's all I could find, sorry.|
There are only a few exceptions to this rule: the names of websites (other than blogs or online journals), generic titles of musical pieces (such as Nocturne in B Major), and titles of older works of art whose creators are unknown (such as the Venus de Milo) are not generally italicized.
Note also that the names of individual portions of a work of art, such as book chapters; episodes of television shows, radio programs, or podcasts; and articles in newspapers, magazines, journals, or blogs should be placed in quotation marks but not italicized. The titles of short works should be treated the same way, such as short stories, most poems, and songs.
The names of ships: Be it a boat, an aircraft, or a spaceship, its name should be italicized: USS Alabama, the Nautilus, Hindenburg, Serenity, the Millennium Falcon.
Sounds: This is an often-missed use of italics. Onomatopoeia—any words intended to represent sounds—should generally be italicized:
His head hit the floor with an unsettling crack.
A deafening whirr filled the room.
Character thoughts: While italics aren’t the only way to express direct character thoughts, they are one of the clearest:
It doesn’t matter how clear I am, she always misunderstands, Katya thought. But she said nothing.
To indicate dreams or other unrealistic settings: Italics are an unusual but occasionally useful method of setting apart one section of the story from another, usually when the italicized section is a non-real sequence of events such as a dream or vision. Terry Brooks used this method in his novel Running With The Demon to highlight the prophetic dreams of one of his characters. The only problem with this method is that some people really have trouble reading entire sections in italics, so use this sparingly.