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To Italicize or Not to Italicize? A Rule of Thumb

Writers need to know what types of terms are put in italics.

Think in terms of relative size. Shorter works are not italicized but go in quotes. A short story would be in quotes, but a short story anthology with many stories would have an italicized title. Songs, poems, unpublished works, articles are in quotes. An epic poem is in italics, though, so I suppose it’s up to you to decide if it’s sufficiently long enough to merit the italics.

Here’s a partial list of the things that need to be italicized:

• Titles of photographs
• Titles of art exhibits
• Titles of blogs (the main title used each time, not the web url)
• Title of podcast programs
• Title of a painting
• Title of a book
• Title of a movie
• Title of a play
• Title of a pamphlet or report
• Title of a music album or CD
• A foreign term (if you use it repeatedly, only italicize it the first time. Do not italicize a foreign name like Fifi LaPlant or a foreign city or street name.)

Note: the name of a website is just in regular headline style: “I like to browse for new tech tips.”

Mind Your Yesses and Nos

Lots of little words mess us writers up. Here’s a list of some with their proper spelling (and note whether they are capitalized or not).

You may want to put these in your notebook and keep handy at your desk:

  • yesses and nos and maybes
  • dos and don’ts
  • MAs, PhDs, BSs, US, DC, ID, US, CIA, FBI (the style is to leave out the periods)
  • ifs, ands, and buts
  • I sent thank-yous
  • coworker (used to be hyphenated but now it’s not)
  • How many “to be continueds” should we expect? (put the s inside the quotes if you are pluralizing a word or expression)
  • Mind your p’s and q’s
  • Dot your i’s and cross your t’s

We’ll be covering more of these from time to time, but too many at once might give you a headache!

Handy Hyphenation Chart

Hyphenation is a real problem for writers. There are so many rules, and sometimes no consistency to them. The best advice I can give you is to get a CD of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, and download it onto your computer. I use it all the time, every day, as it is the accepted authority in book publishing. (Note: The CD is included in the paperback book in the back, so this way you will have the book as a reference too.)

The Chicago Manual of Style takes precedence over M-W, though, so I encourage you to download this CMOS Hyphenation Chart from CMOS 16th Edition, print it out, and refer to it whenever you are unsure whether a word should be hyphenated or not. Often CMOS will refer you to check M-W for their take on a particular word, so you need both tools. With both of these resources at your fingertips, you will be able to go through your book and clean it up. Remember—your spell-checker will steer you wrong a lot! It will often tag some words as not being in the dictionary when they are correct, and it will sometimes let a misspelling slip through, so use your spell-checker judiciously!

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