Friday, March 4, 2016

Quotes & Italics Revisited

A popular post from March 2011

by Annette Lyon

My original post about when to use italics and quotation marks was nearly four years ago, but it still gets hits and comments. Those comments are often new questions that the post didn't cover. A reader e-mail with another question pushed the topic over the edge.

It's time for another edition to answer additional questions about quotation marks and italics! (Cue the celebration music . . .)

1. Series
First off, since that post, I've learned a rule that somehow never made it onto my radar before:

Series don't get italics or quote marks.

A series is considered to be a name, not a title (so the Harry Potter series is plain Roman text, but The Half-blood Prince gets italics). When I first learned the rule, I thought it meant just books, but it looks like some editors prefer to leave television series as names alone (so Star Trek instead of Star Trek, which is the form I used in the old post).

I don't know that there's a lot of consensus on television series yet, but book series for sure are simply capped.

2. Places Get Roman Text
I mentioned this briefly in the last post, and #1 above hints at it, but it bears repeating: names don't get italics or quotation marks, just capped Roman text.

Names include houses (Tara or Green Gables) as well as stores (Sears) and museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

A special exhibit at a museum, however, may have a title that you'd use italics with, but only in a situation when you're referring to the exhibit, such as in a school report, not on fliers or signs at the exhibit. In those situations, the title would be acting as a title. Just like you wouldn't italicize a novel's title on the cover of the book, you wouldn't italicize the title of an exhibit on a sign.

3. Short Magazines Are still Magazines
Magazine titles get italics, and the articles inside get quotation marks. This is true even if the magazine (or newsletter) isn't a big one. You could have a small periodical, and it would still get italics, regardless of length.

4. In the US, Use Double Quotation Marks
When quoting something or setting off a word, always use double quote marks. Single quote marks are used in the UK, not in the US. The only time you'd use single quote marks is if you had a quote within a quote, such as:
Julie asked, "Did you hear Pete? He just asked, 'Who still needs a ticket?'"
Note the single + double quote marks at the end, which close both Pete's quotation and Julie's. It looks weird with what looks like three marks there, but it's correct.

When in doubt, use double quotes.

5. Prayer Names Are Names, Not Titles
So you'd write: Hail Mary, The Lord's Prayer, etc.

6. Large Quotations Can Get Italics
If you're writing a non-fiction piece and using long (more than a sentence) quotes, you can set the quotation off by indenting it in a block and italicizing the whole thing. That's a visual cue to the reader that they're reading someone else's words.

Since you already have that cue, don't add quotation marks to the block quote. They're redundant.

7. Foreign Words
It's common for foreign words in both fiction and non-fiction to be set apart for clarity, sort of a sign post to the reader that says, "Hey, this is a foreign word, in case you weren't sure."

It's usually done with italics. Some style guides may choose quotation marks instead, but italics are more common because of the potential for ambiguity with the use of ironic quotation marks. (See #9, below.)

If you're using foreign words in a novel, I'd suggest italicizing them throughout. Some writers choose to italicize foreign words just the first time they're used and then use Roman text after that.

Which direction you go will likely depend ultimately on your publisher's style guide. For sure, the one thing you don't want to do is switch back and forth between Roman and italics. Be consistent.

8. Quoting a Definition
If I want to write a word and then define it, putting quotation marks around first the word and then the definition would look odd:
"Myriad," "a great number."
Usually the word being defined gets italics (like with #7. Foreign Words). Then I'd add a colon and write out the definition. To clarify that the definition came from a specific dictionary, I could add quotation marks around the whole thing, or indent the section like this (see #6):

Quotation marks, not indented:

"Myriad: a great number" (Merriam-Webster online)

Indented, without quotation marks:
myriad: a great number (Merriam-Webster online)
9. Don't Pull a Joey
Quotation marks often mean you're being ironic, that you don't really mean what's in them.

The correct use of ironic quotation marks would be to say I'm eating a "beef" patty, when it's really soy protein. The quotation marks make it clear that the patty really isn't beef.

On the other hand, a burger from Carl's Jr. would never have quote marks around it. It's really a beef patty.

A YouTube clip of Joey incorrectly using air quotes (a physical form of ironic quotes) has the embedding disabled, so I can't post it.

So be sure to check it out HERE. I crack up whenever I see it. It's worth 44 seconds of your time.

For more on incorrect quotation marks, check out the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks (misuse in the name absolutely intentional). SO funny!


Happily Cheesy said...

It's all the in details eh? Great post.

T.J. said...

Loved seeing the Joey reference!

~T~ said...

I've just been wondering about #6. I'm working on a story which includes long passages from a paper written by one of the characters. I've been indenting the blocks. Would italics still be appropriate? Some passages are being read aloud by another character. Should I add quotation marks to the indented italics?

Annette Lyon said...

T, You can definitely italicize your blocks, but you don't necessarily have to--the indenting is a pretty strong cue all by itself that you're quoting something (and if you site your source, so much the better).

I wouldn't add quotation marks to the indented quote, regardless of whether it's italicized.

~T~ said...

Thank you! I have one more question: how does one denote a particular key on a computer keyboard?

Annette Lyon said...

T, Another one that's probably up to individual style guides, but I'd use small caps rather than either italics or quotation marks.

Anonymous said...

My head hurts from the explaining.

Katherine Hayward said...

Hi I'm writing my first novel and there are long paragraphs from letters and emails the characters write: do I italicise these parts? Or just indent before writing? What's a good font and size to use if I aim to try and publish it? I've just done NaNoWriMo, I'm not sure if you have . I'd really appreciate help with this. Thanks

Katherine Hayward said...

Hi , I've written my first book via NaNoWriMo , and would like to know if I have to italicise emails and letters my characters have written? Do I indent first? How much? I need to know by tomorrow so I can submit my manuscript for winners offers.

Josi said...


how to handle emails and letters is a bit more subjective. For me, I put emails into 'ariel' font with an email header. With letters I will usually put it in some kind of handwritten font or italics works as well. What you want to do is set is apart from your prose, but you don't want to get too crazy with the formatting. Good luck!