Italics help distinguish many titles

October 04, 2012|Lisa Prejean

In a recent class, I received several blank stares as I tried to explain how book titles can be underlined or italicized.

There was a time when italic type was only available to publishers and calligraphers.

Italic type looks like this. It tilts to the right.

Typewriters did not have format or font functions to change type to bold or italic, so students were taught to underline titles and the names of long works. The title would be typed and the typewriter carriage would be moved back to the beginning of the first word so that an underline could be tapped out one character at a time.

(If you remember doing this, you're probably as old as I am, and teens probably don't follow your stories, either.)

It was at this point in the explanation that I realized I had lost my students. They can't imagine a keyboard without a screen.

Most of them have wireless printing right from their laptops, so it is rather hard to relate to a keyboard without a screen and with a cord.

They were having trouble with the concept of inserting a piece of paper onto a typewriter roll and typing letters on it.

Because I don't have an old typewriter to pull out and demonstrate how this was done, I decided to take a different approach.

"So, let's say you left your laptop at home but you need to start writing the essay your teacher just assigned. You get out a piece of paper and a pencil and start writing. In the essay, you are quoting from a book. You are writing by hand, so how do you designate the title of a book? Since you can't easily free-hand draw in italics, you draw a line under the title."

That seemed to help the students.

English grammar rules teach us that underlining or italics can be used for plays, magazines, television or radio shows and musical compositions. Works of art, large vehicles — ships, trains, aircraft and spacecraft — also should be italicized or underlined. (However, the Associated Press style, which is used by most newspapers, prefers quotes to italics in many of these instances, but that's a lesson for another day.)

In addition, foreign words and phrases should be designated by italics or underlining.

(Even though my students would say that "foreign words" should include most of the ones on their vocabulary list, that isn't so. Yeah, they bellyache about the vocab, but they are thankful after seeing their SAT scores.)

Contrary to popular belief, foreign words really are words from a different language. Nice try, teens.

If, for instance, a student wanted to write, "For his birthday, Ralph wanted du gateau au chocolat," the French words would be italicized.

After all, who wouldn't want chocolate cake for his birthday?

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send email to

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