Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Quotes or Italics?

by Annette Lyon

It's the simple things that shoot you in the foot, knock you off the slush pile, and get a rejection flying to your mail box.

It's also the simple things that make you look more polished and professional: things like knowing when to italicize a title versus when to put quote marks around it.

Here is a basic primer on the quote marks vs. italics rules:

First and foremost, never ever use quote marks or italics when a title is ACTING as a title. In other words, on your own title page or at the top of your manuscript, DON'T italicize or put quote marks on your own title.

(Have you EVER seen a title ON a book italicized? Ever seen a magazine article with quotes around it? Don't think so.)

On the other hand, when you're referring to your own work, THEN you'll either italicize or quote mark it, such as in a cover letter or query. (Enclosed is my fantasy short story, "Please Publish Me.")

The basic rule of thumb:

Use QUOTE MARKS for things that are SHORT.
Use ITALICS for things that are LONG.

I had an editor once suggest a way to remember this by going back to the days of typewriters, when they used the underline key for the italics. A long line reminded her of a bookshelf, or something LONG, while quote marks looked like nails or hooks, something that would hold up something little.

Okay, so what constitutes SHORT and LONG?

Quote marks go around short works such as:
Poems: "Prometheus" by Lord Byron
Songs: "The Star Spangled Banner," by Francis Scott Key
Magazine Articles: "Learning from Lincoln's Wisdom" by William Kristol
Short Stories: "A Rose for Emily," by William Faulkner
Episodes within a TV series: "The Trouble with Tribbles" in Star Trek
Chapters within a book: "The Boy Who Lived" in Harry Potter

Italics set apart larger works such as:
Novels: Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
Magazines: Time Magazine
Television Series: Star Trek
Movies: Shrek
Ships: The Monitor

Another hint: If something can be broken down further, the smaller piece goes into quote marks, and the larger work will be in italics (ie, the magazine will be italics, while the articles inside it will be in quote marks. The TV series will be italics and the individual episodes will be quote marks).

And I have no clue why ships are in italics. That's just the rule. :)

Other items that aren't listed above, such as a brand of soda or jeans, a big mansion (think Tara in Gone with the Wind) or a store, are just names, not titles, and therefore don't need to have quotes or italics. Simply capitalize them.

These things may seem nit-picky, but they're the types of things editors do watch out for. Yes, editors try to overlook little mistakes, but why give them one more thing against you?

Tuck one more thing into your arsenal and be prepared, because the writer who comes out ahead is the one who is forearmed.

Edited to add: I've added a new post (find it HERE) with updated italics and quotations mark rules, as well as answers to questions I've received since this post first went live.


Josi said...

I have always wondered why titles are formated differently, I thought it was based on preference only! Thanks so much.

Anna Maria Junus said...

Most of this I was doing instinctively, but I never actually knew it. Thank you.

jennifer said...

What about the ttle of an exhibition at an art gallery? Italics?

jennifer said...

oops... title! :)

Annette Lyon said...

Jennifer, good question! I think the name of the gallery itself would be straight Roman letters (you don't italicize or put quote marks on your own name or names of other places (like Tara in Gone with the Wind).

But yes, I think the title of the exhibit itself would be italicized. Not 100% sure on that, but that's my gut feeling.

jennifer said...


Unknown said...

Would a 4-6 page newsletter be considered short or long? It's like a mini-magazine in a way, but pretty short overall.

Annette Lyon said...

I'd say that a newsletter would fall under the same category as a magazine, especially if it'll be broken into smaller, article-like sections--so italicize the title.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say thanks a bunch. This was very helpful for my husband's college writing course.

Livevil1133 said...

Wow. That answered my question clearly and easily. Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

always use quote marks –
double, opening/closing “ ”
or single, opening/closing ‘ ’
and not feet ' or inch " marks
when quoting something.

Unknown said...

What about the title of a presentation, speech or webinar?

Annette Lyon said...

Jessica, Good question. I think it probably depends on the individual situation an bit, but most of the time, I'd say that the same basic rule applies.

In many cases, a presentation or speech will be part of a larger whole, such as a conference, for example. So the conference name would be italicized, but the individual presentations/speeches would be in quotes.

Anonymous said...

This was so helpful!! thank you soo much!! you're a freshman english life saver!

Annette Lyon said...

Anon, So glad! (Coming from a former English freshman!)

Unknown said...

I have looked absolutely everywhere, and I cannot find if you should use quotes or italicize or capitalize or do nothing at all with the title of a prayer, like the Lord's Prayer, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, etc. Could you help me out? Thanks!

Annette Lyon said...

Lauren, I don't know of an official rule, but to me, prayers fall under the category of "things with names" rather than "thing with titles."

Italics and quote marks deal with titles, but we don't use them with names (you wouldn't use them with your own name or the name of a store, for example).

I think you're safe using just caps and neither italics nor quotes.

Tarek said...

How about when we quote someone directly? Should we just put quotations around the saying, or italicize it as well? I personally think doing both looks better and tells the reader "NOT MY WORDS!" to avoid confusion. What do you think?

Thank you :)

Unknown said...

I live in a bilingual place where text is mostly in English, however, many spanish words that cannot be easily translated are used in everyday speech. When taking minutes,do these words that are NOT titles go in italics or quotes?

Annette Lyon said...

In cases with foreign words, either is acceptable.

But if the majority of the readers of your minutes will understand a word, you can probably leave it alone, without either italics or quotes. They're generally used as a signpost to a reader that "hey, this is a foreign word, in case you were unsure."

Kim said...

I need to write a congratulatory note in the program for a play in which my daughter is performing. I want to write that the definition of the phrase "coming of age" means "the attainment of prominence, recognition, respectability and maturity". Putting both of those in quotes looks funny to me. Would I italicize the words, coming of age?

Annette Lyon said...

Kim, You could do either. I agree that italics for the words and then quotes for the definition looks cleaner.

Kim said...

Thank you! You are so helpful. And you respond so quickly!

Melmoe said...

I'm a transcriptionist and I'm doing work for Bishop Jakes right now and he has this conference (I guess that's what I'd call it) called Woman, Thou art Loosed. It's being referred to in a sermon and I can't decide whether to put it in italics or anything. So I guess my question is what about the name of a conference?

Annette Lyon said...

Keep in mind that italics and quotes go for TITLES.

NAMES get neither. Think: Sarah, Joe, Peter, Darcy.

I'm quite sure that a conference goes under the same umbrella. It's a NAME, not a title. So use initial caps according to the rules that apply there, and don't worry about quotation marks or italics at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm editing a monograph where there are paragraphs that include reflections/writings from different people. The author is putting these writings in all italics to distinguish them from the regular text. But within the reflection/writings are the titles of a play. Do you then put the titles of the play in regular type?

Annette Lyon said...

If the text is in italics, then yes, you'd put anything that needs italicized emphasis back into regular Roman typeface.

Anonymous said...

So the name of a series AND the books in the series would be in italics? For example, The Hunger Games, and also Mockingjay?

Annette Lyon said...

The current rule (and I'll update the post to reflect that) is that series are considered names, not titles. So a series won't get italics, but the books in series (or the episodes of a TV series) will.

Anonymous said...

Hi Annette: What about the title of a webinar series? Roman letters with capitalization and no quotation marks, quotation marks or italicized letters?

Annette Lyon said...

Good question! With the explosion of the internet, a lot of things are in flux.

For example, on many websites, you'll see titles that technically should be italicized but instead are in all caps or quotations marks. That's largely because of coding issues, browser differences, etc.

The end result is that many of the quotes/italics rules are different online and become style guide issues specific to each website, publication, or company.

I imagine that a common way of doing the title of a webinar would be initial caps and no italics, but there isn't a hard and fast rule. It's a style choice. Just be consistent with whichever way you pick.