I Is for Italics

After reading “E Is for Ellipsis,” my friend the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs emailed me. “I can hardly wait until u get to I,” she wrote. “I, I hope, will stand for ‘italics.'”

This sentence is set in italics. In typographical terms, type that isn’t italicized is called “roman.” Most of this blog post – and most of most books — is set in roman type. For most fonts, roman is the default setting. Italics and bold are among its variations.

Cynthia is currently one of the jurors in a major mystery award’s first-novel category. The novels she has read so far are, to put it tactfully, a mixed bag. She went on:

The current book I am reviewing has alternate chapters printed in italics. ALL italics, page after page. It’s like reading someone’s handwritten manuscript. The chapters jump from one where I’m not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into my brain, to a sudden slow-down where I must decipher each wiggly word and consider what the words mean when put together.

In another first-novel entrant, “each character’s words [were set] in a distinctive typeface so we, the readers, would know who’s speaking.”

Curious, I inspected these titles at the next opportunity, which arose PDQ because my Sunday-night writers’ group meets at Cynthia’s house. As I suspected, they were self-published. Self-publishing authors not only produce the manuscript; they also assemble the production team that sees it into print and markets it. Novice self-publishers often skimp on the professional editing and design that make a book readable.

A capable, experienced book designer knows  that in general the goal is to produce pages where, as Cynthia put it, readers are “not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into [the reader’s] brain.” When the type calls attention to itself, it’s because the designer intended it to. In typography, less is often more. Any technique used to excess becomes, well, excessive. It loses impact and annoys the reader.

The digital age makes excess all too easy. Even the fairly basic options that WordPress offers bloggers include bold, italics, bold italics, strikeout, and lots of pretty colors. Word-processing apps like Word and LibreOffice offer a gazillion fonts in an array of sizes, most of which you would not want to read a whole book in, or even a short chapter.

Newspapers and other publications following the Associated Press (AP) stylebook have managed to get by without italics since forever. Before the age of digital composition, italics were hard to produce and couldn’t be transmitted by wire, which is how news stories were transmitted from the wire services to their subscribers around the world. However, as noted on the AP Stylebook‘s website, “Publications that adhere to AP editing style make their own decisions on graphics and design, including use of italics.”

That said, thanks to various widely accepted conventions,  italics do come in handy for conveying meaning, and good writers, editors, and designers learn to use them — and other typographical devices — wisely. Here are a few instances where the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS or CMoS) recommends the use of italics:

  • Titles of books and other full-length creative works. Short works, such as songs, poems, and short stories,  and the component parts of longer ones are set in roman with quotation marks. Example: “Natural Resources” is included in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977, by Adrienne Rich.
  • Names of newspapers, e.g., the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. CMS  recommends setting “the” lowercase roman even when it’s part of the official title. Publications following AP style often initial-cap and italicize the whole official title, “the” included.
  • Foreign-language words that aren’t included in English-language dictionaries. For example, “raison d’être” comes from the French but is well established in English usage, so no italics. The Gaelic word uisge appears in one of my current copyediting projects. It’s not widely used in English, though the familiar word “whiskey” (also spelled “whisky”) is derived from it, so it’s italicized.

Many fiction writers use italics to indicate what a character is thinking, to distinguish it from what the character says out loud, which is set in roman with quotation marks on either side. Other writers stick with roman type but without the quotes. Either method can work, but keep in mind my friend Cynthia’s words. The goal is for the author’s voice to go directly into the reader’s brain. Typographical style can aid this process without calling attention to itself.

When writers rely too heavily on typography to get the point across, it’s often because the writing itself needs attention. Changes in speaker can be conveyed in words alone. Italics can be used to let readers know when a character is thinking to herself, but when the italics run on for a long paragraph or even a whole page or two, it’s time to take another look at the writing.