Maybe you’re writing your author bio or a blog post, or maybe you need to refer to a book in your own story.
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But when it comes to typing in that book title, you find yourself hovering between the italics and underline buttons, unsure which to choose.
In most cases, there’s a straightforward answer to this conundrum, which means the general rule is nice and easy to remember once you know it.
Read on to get the lowdown on representing book titles in your writing.
Italicise or Underline Book Titles: The General Rule
Unless you’re following a style guide that specifically tells you otherwise, you should generally italicise book titles.
This is the rule you’ll find in many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, Harvard referencing style and the Modern Language Association (MLA).
These style guides are mainly targeted at academic writing, but if you look at magazines, periodicals and other edited print or digital publications, you’ll notice that most also italicise book titles.
If you happen across some older documents, you might see book titles underlined, as this used to be the standard. But underlining fell out of favour as computer technology improved and formatting and style options became more varied.
In contemporary practice, underlining is generally not considered a standard way of distinguishing book titles in your writing.
Having said that, there are style guides that prefer enclosing book titles in quotation marks over italics, so it’s always a good idea to check this. But if nothing is specified, italicization is the best fallback.
This might all seem a bit arbitrary, but ultimately, formatting book titles correctly is a matter of producing a professional, consistent piece of writing.
Following the expectations of specific publishers and publications is a big part of a writer’s role, and styling book titles correctly is one way of showing you can adhere to standard writing practices.
Why Does It Matter?
As writers, many of us are probably fairly pedantic when it comes to grammar, punctuation and style (I know I am!).
But just in case you’ve read this far and are still wondering why it really matters if you italicise or underline (or do anything at all), here’s some food for thought.
Distinguishing book titles in some way is important to avoid confusion. Many books have titles that aren’t automatically recognisable as book titles.
If titles are included in the flow of a sentence without any indication, they can pull readers up as they try to read the title as part of the sentence.
When you produce a piece of writing, you no doubt hope your audience will read it closely, think about it and enjoy it. But nothing throws a reader out of a piece of writing like incorrect or out-of-place punctuation and formatting.
If you underline book titles, you’ll potentially confuse readers and likely distract them from the content of your piece. They’ll start to think not about what you’re saying, but about the things that stand out as odd or incorrect!
The risk of confusion is particularly strong if you’re writing for digital publication. Readers typically expect that an underline on the web will be a hyperlink, so underlining book titles here is something to avoid.
For all these reasons, it’s in your best interests to present book titles accurately in your writing. It’ll help you come across as professional, and will make your piece clearer and easier to understand.
Are There Exceptions to the General Rule?
Beyond the case of a style guide that asks for something other than italics, there are few exceptions or special cases to the rule of italicising book titles.
One exception would be the very rare case where you’re writing by hand, because it’s pretty hard to represent italics in handwriting.
You might also need to submit writing through a web form, where it isn’t always possible to include formatting like italics.
In this case, sometimes there might be instructions that give you an alternative, but otherwise, enclosing titles in asterisks is a common way of indicating italics in this case.
Using all caps for the title is another option that’s commonly used on social media. Social media platforms are informal, so it isn’t as important to do things in a standard way here. As long as your meaning is clear, no one is likely to pull you up.
In the above cases, it’s often best to avoid using quotation marks as an alternative. Because quotation marks are used to signify other forms of writing (which we’ll get to in a minute), this could make things unclear.
Another special case you might come across is a chunk of italicised text that has a book title within it. In this case, you would remove the italics from the internal title so it stands out.
When quoting from a source that doesn’t italicise a book title, it’s generally considered acceptable to change titles in the quote so they’re italicised to match the style of your own work.
Again, this is really just a matter of being consistent so as not to cause confusion.
What About Other Kinds Of Titles?
We’ve covered book titles, but what about poems or blog posts? What about book series titles? This is where things get a bit more complicated – and where we get back to quotation marks.
If you’re italicising book titles, you’ll generally want to enclose the titles of poems, blog posts, articles or stories from an anthology in quotation marks.
Other things you’ll want to italicise include movie titles, magazine titles, and in most styles, overall website titles.
A good way to remember what needs italics and what needs quotation marks is that the pieces contained within books or larger ‘publications’ (which could include magazines, journals or blogs/websites) tend to be placed in quotation marks, while the larger publications themselves are italicised.
For example, a poem published in a literary journal would be styled: “Name of Poem”, Name of Literary Journal.
That seems easy enough, right? But what about book series titles?
Well, the jury’s out on this one. Even in the most professional of publications, you wouldn’t be surprised to see italicised or regular (roman) text when it comes to series titles.
MLA gives a confusing set of rules where the way book series titles are treated depends on whether the series title forms a part of each book’s title.
If it does, you can italicise the series title; otherwise, leave the series title in plain text.
For example, Nancy Drew is a series title you wouldn’t italicise, because the words ‘Nancy Drew’ are not in the book titles.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, could go either way, because ‘the Harry Potter series’ could mean the series about Harry Potter (the character’s name, so not italicised), or the series titled Harry Potter (a series title that also appears in the book titles, so italicised).
Talk about complicated!
Chicago’s rule of leaving series titles in plain text is much simpler and more logical. After all, a series is not a singular, physical book, and usually you’ll include the word ‘series’ in a sentence about a series, which will make things clear.
Having said all that, you probably will see series titles italicised in some places and not in others.
As long as you’re consistent and italicising doesn’t end up causing confusion between individual books and the series, it’s really up to you what you do in this case.
Should You Italicise Punctuation?
This is one of those things that only the most pedantic among us are likely to notice. But if you happen to get a particularly eagle-eyed reader or editor, it’s just the thing that might annoy them.
The rule for this one is that if punctuation and grammatical appendages are not a part of the original book title, they shouldn’t be italicised.
This can seem a little strange in some cases, but it’s really a sensible rule: these features are not part of the title itself, so to present them as though they are could be confusing.
In practice, this means that if you have a comma or full stop after your book title, you should turn italics off before that piece of punctuation. The same is true for dashes, question marks and any other punctuation.
A place where this rule might get confusing is when you need a possessive apostrophe with the book title. For example: ‘On Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s cover …’
In this example, the possessive ‘s after ‘stone’ is not italicised because it’s not in the title itself.
Even if it strikes you as odd to have part of the word italicised and part not, it’s important to get this right to distinguish between what is and isn’t the book’s title.
All in all, the question of whether to italicise or underline a book title has a straightforward answer: italicise unless your style guide tells you otherwise.
But there are various nuances to be aware of for particular situations, or depending on the platform you’re publishing your writing on. And when it comes to other kinds of titles, it can all become a bit confusing.
The good thing is, once you’ve got it all in hand, getting italics, quotation marks and underlining right in titles and in your writing more broadly can make your writing more professional and consistent.
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You’ll show publishers that you can follow formatting and style guidelines, and ensure that readers focus fully on your content.