Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
An error in the use of italics or quotation marks—using one rather than the other or not using either when their use is required—is not likely a problem that will have an agent or publisher turning down your manuscript, especially if your manuscript isn’t bulging with other errors. Yet knowing when to use both italics and quotation marks is useful and important for writers. The cleaner the manuscript, the fewer problems it will be perceived to have. And when rules are followed, the manuscript will have consistency; if you don’t know the rules, it’s likely that you won’t make the same choices consistently throughout a story. And if you self-publish, when you’re the one doing the editing, you’ll definitely want to know how and when to use both italics and quotation marks and know how to choose between them.
To start off, I will point out that there is no need to underline anything in a novel manuscript. Writers used to underline text where they intended italics, but because it’s now so easy to see and find and identify italics, underlining is no longer necessary, not for fiction manuscripts.
Note: Underlining may be required for school or college writing projects or other purposes. I’m strictly addressing fiction manuscripts here.
Without underlining, the choices are italics, quotation marks, and unmarked or plain text.
Let’s start with the last option—plain text—first.
Not all text that seems to require italics or quotation marks actually does. Most words in your manuscript will be roman text—unchanged by italics—and, apart from dialogue, will not be enclosed by quotation marks. Yet sometimes writers are confused about italics and quotation marks, especially when dealing with named entities. A quick rule: Simple names need only be capitalized—no other marks are necessary.
This is one writing question that’s easy to overthink once you begin editing, but a name usually only needs to be capitalized; it typically doesn’t require italics or quotation marks. (There are exceptions, of course.)
Capitalize names of people, places, and things. This means that Bob, Mr. Smith, Grandma Elliott, and Fido are capitalized but not italicized or put in quotation marks. The same is true for Disney World, the Grand Canyon, Edie’s Bistro, and the World Series. When a person’s title is paired with a name—Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Reverend Thomas—both name and title are capitalized. But when a title is not used as a name—the president is young, the pastor can sing—no capitalization is required.
Nouns are typically the words that you’ll capitalize, but not all nouns are capitalized. Capitalize named nouns. So Fido is capitalized, but dog is not; Aunt Margaret (used as a name) is capitalized, but my aunt is not; my aunt Margaret gets a mix of capitalization.
Brand names and trademarks are typically capitalized, but some have unusual capitalizations (iPad, eBay, TaylorMade, adidas). Refer to dictionaries and to company guidelines or Internet sources for correct capitalization and spelling. Note that home pages of websites may feature decorative text; look at pages with corporate details for correct information.
You may make a style decision and capitalize such words according to established rules, and that would be a valid decision. Yet a name is a name, and spelling or capitalizing it the way its creators intended may well be the better choice.
That’s it for most named people or things or places—most are capitalized but do not require italics or quotation marks. A quick rule: Names (of people, places, and things) need to be capitalized, but titles (of things) need both capitalization and either quotation marks or italics.
Items in the following categories need neither italics nor quotation marks (unless italics or quotation marks are an intrinsic part of the title). This is only a very short list, but most named nouns are treated similarly.
car manufacturers General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota
car brands or divisions: Buick, Chevrolet
car names: Riviera, Touareg, Camry
restaurants: Chili’s, Sally’s Place, Chuck’s Rib House
scriptures and revered religious books: the Bible, Koran, the Book of Common Prayer
books of the Bible: Genesis, Acts, the Gospel according to Matthew
wars and battles: Korean War, Russian Revolution, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Hastings
companies: Coca-Cola, Amazon, Barclays, Nokia
product names: Coke, Kleenex, Oreo
shops: Dolly’s Delights, Macy’s, Coffee House
museums, schools and colleges: the High Museum, the Hermitage, Orchard Elementary School, the University of Notre Dame
houses of worship: First Baptist Church of Abbieville, the Cathedral of St. Philip, Temple Sinai, City Center Community Masjid
Note: There is much more to capitalization, yet that topic requires an article (or five) of its own. Look for such an article in the future. The Chicago Manual of Style has an in-depth chapter on capitalization; I recommend you search it for specifics.
Quotation Marks and Italics
Beyond capitalization, some nouns are also distinguished by italics or quotation marks. Think in terms of titles here, but typically titles of things and not people.
So we’re talking book, movie, song, and TV show titles; titles of newspapers and magazines and titles of articles in those newspapers and magazines; titles of artwork and poems.
One odd category included here is vehicles. Not brand names of vehicles but names of individual craft: spaceships, airships, ships, and trains.
But which titles get quotation marks and which get italics?
The general rule is that titles of works that are made up of smaller/shorter divisions are italicized, and the smaller divisions are put in quotation marks. This means a book title is italicized, and chapter titles (but not chapter numbers) are in quotation marks. A TV show title is italicized, but episode titles are in quotation marks. An album or CD title is put in italics, but the song titles are in quotation marks.
Note: This rule for chapter titles in books is not referring to chapter titles of a manuscript itself, which are not put in quotation marks within the manuscript. Use quotation marks in your text if a character or narrator is thinking about or speaking a chapter title, not for your own chapter titles.
Quotation marks and italics are both also used for other purposes in fiction. For example, we typically use italics when we use a word as a word.
My stylist always says rebound when he means rebond.
I counted only half a dozen ums in the chairman’s speech. (Note that the s making um plural is not italicized.)
Since a list is quick and easy to read, let’s simply list categories for both italics and quotation marks.
Barring exceptions, items from the categories should be italicized or put in quotation marks, as indicated, in your stories.
Use Italics For
Titles: Titles of specific types of works are italicized. This is true for both narration and dialogue.
operas and ballets
long musical pieces (such as symphonies)
works of art (paintings, sculptures, photographs)
blogs (but not websites in general, which are only capitalized)
Odds and Ends: Titles of cartoons and comic strips (Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Pearls Before Swine) are italicized. Exhibitions at small venues (such as a museum) are italicized (BODIES . . . The Exhibition) but fairs and other major exhibitions (the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition) are only capitalized.
Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird (book), Citizen Kane (movie), A Prairie Home Companion (radio show), La bohème (opera), Paradise Lost (long poem), Rhapsody in Blue (long musical piece), Washington Post (newspaper), Car and Driver (magazine), Starry Night (painting), The Age of Reason (pamphlet), This American Life (podcast), The Editor’s Blog (blog)
Exception: Generic titles of musical works are not italicized. This includes those named by number (op. 3 or no. 5) or by key (Nocturne in B Major) and those simply named for the musical form (Requiem or Overture). If names and generic titles are combined, italicize only the name, not the generic title.
Exception: Titles of artwork dating from antiquity whose creators are unknown are not italicized. (the Venus de Milo or the Seated Scribe)
Ship names: names of ships on water, in space, in the air
Examples: HMS Illustrious, USS Nimitz, space shuttle Endeavor, Hindenburg, Spruce Goose
Notes: 1. The abbreviations for Her Majesty’s ship (HMS) and United States ship (USS) are not italicized.
2. The current recommendation of The Chicago Manual of Style is to not italicize train names. CMOS may be differentiating between physical ships with individual names and railroad route names, which is typically what is named when we think of trains; the specific grouping of train cars may not be named and may actually change from one trip to another. Locomotives, however, may have names. If they do, you would be safe to italicize that name.
While I understand this reasoning, I see no problem with italicizing a train’s (or a train route’s) commonly known name—Trans-Siberian Express, Royal Scotsman, California Zephyr—as writers have done in the past. This is strictly a personal opinion.
3. The definite article is unnecessary with ship names—they are names and not titles. So Yorktown rather than the Yorktown. It’s likely that characters with military backgrounds would follow this rule, but many civilians may not. If your character would say the Yorktown, then include the article.
Words as words: As already noted, words used as words are usually italicized. This helps forestall confusion when these words are not used in the usual manner.
Examples: The word haberdashery has gone out of style.
Edith wasn’t sure what lugubrious meant, but it sounded slimy to her.
Letters as letters: Letters referred to as letters are italicized.
Examples: The i in my name is silent.
On the faded treasure map, an X actually did mark the spot.
All the men in his hometown have at least three s’s in their names.
Notes: 1. Only the letter itself is italicized for plurals. So we have s’s, capital Ls, and a dozen m’s. (The apostrophe and concluding s are not italicized.)
2. An apostrophe is used for the plurals (lowercase letters only) to prevent confusion or the misreading of letters as words; a’s rather than as and i’s rather than is.
3. Familiar phrases including p’s and q’s and dot your i’s and cross your t’s do not require italics. (They are italicized here because I’m using them as words, not for their meaning.)
4. Letters for school grades are not italicized, though they are capitalized.
Sound words: Italicize words that stand in for sounds or reproduce sounds that characters and readers hear.
Examples: The whomp-whomp of helicopter blades drowned out her frail voice.
An annoying bzzz woke him.
C-r-rack! Something heavy—someone heavy—fell through the rotted floorboards.
Foreign words: Uncommon or unfamiliar foreign words are italicized the first time they are used in a story. After that, roman type is sufficient. Foreign-language words familiar to most readers do not need italics. Proper names and places in foreign languages are never italicized.
Examples: The words amigo, mucho, coup d’état, risqué, nyet, and others like them are common enough that you wouldn’t need to italicize them in fiction. (I italicized them because in my example they are words used as words.)
“Use caution, my dear. That pretty flower you like so much is velenoso. It slows the heart.”
It was something my grandmother always said to me. Sie sind mein kostbares kleines Mädchen.
Building sites on the Potsdamer Platz went for a lot of money once the Berlin Wall came down.
Emphasis: Use italics to emphasize a word or part of a word. Yet don’t overdo. A character who emphasizes words all the time may sound odd. And the italics may annoy your readers.
Examples: I wanted a new dress, but I needed new shoes.
She quickly said, “It’s not what you think.”
“Sal invited everyone to the party at his uncle’s beach house. And I mean every single student from his school.”
Something—someone—shattered all the street lights.
Character thoughts: Character thoughts can be expressed in multiple ways; italics is one of those ways. (But it isn’t the only way and may not be the best way. See “How to Punctuate Character Thoughts” for details.)
Example: I expected more from her, he thought. But he shouldn’t have.
You can find many more tips and suggestions for cleaning up your text in The Magic of Fiction.
Use Quotation Marks For
Titles: As is done with titles and italics, titles of specific types of works are put inside quotation marks. This is true for both narration and dialogue.
book chapters (named, not numbered, chapters)
TV show episodes
radio show episodes
short poems (most poems)
newspaper, magazine, and journal articles
unpublished works (dissertations, manuscripts in collections)
Odds and Ends: Signs (and other notices) are typically not put in quotation marks or italicized, though they are capitalized—The back lot was marked with No Parking signs. They don’t even require hyphens for compounds—The gardener was putting up Do Not Walk on the Grass signs. However, long signs (think sentence length or longer) are put in quotation marks and not capitalized. Consider them as quotations—Did you see the handwritten sign? “Take your shoes off, line them up at the door, and walk without speaking to the second door on the left.”
The same rule applies for mottoes and maxims. An example: To Protect and Serve was the department’s old motto. Now it’s “Cover your tracks, lie if you get caught, blame your behavior on drugs, and vilify the victim.”
Examples: They read through “The Laurence Boy” in one sitting. (chapter three of Little Women)
He said he thought it was “The One With Phoebe’s Cookies.” (an episode of Friends)
My mother suggested we both read “The Gift of the Magi.” (short story)
“The Princess Bride—Storytelling Done Right” was written in two hours. (blog article)
Exception: Titles of regular columns in newspapers and magazines are not put in quotation marks (Dear Abby, At Wit’s End).
Dialogue: Enclose the spoken words of direct dialogue (not the dialogue tags or action beats) between opening and closing quotation marks. Do not use quotation marks for indirect dialogue.
Exception: When dialogue continues into a new paragraph, do not include a closing quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph; use the closing quotation mark only at the end of the spoken words. (If dialogue continues uninterrupted for several paragraphs, you will have a number of opening quotation marks but only one closing quotation mark.)
Examples: “I told you I loved you. You never believed me.”
“I told you I was there,” he said. But I never believed him.
“He tried,” I said, waving my fingers, “but he failed.”
“My dog ate the first page”—Billy pointed at Dexter Blue—“but I saved the rest.”
Exception Example: “I needed to do it, but I just couldn’t. And then you know what happened—Bing threw his knife and I ducked and he hit the minister’s wife. And then pandemonium broke out, everyone running every which way. It was madness.
“And after that, we raced out before the cops could get there.”
Notes: 1. American English (AmE) always uses double quotation marks for dialogue. If you have a quotation within dialogue, the inner quotation gets single quotation marks.
2. British English (BrE) allows for either single or double quotation marks, with the reverse for quotes inside other quotes or dialogue.
Words used in a nonstandard manner or as sarcasm, irony, or mockery: Use quotation marks to point out irony or words used in an unusual way, perhaps as slang or mockery. Most slang wouldn’t need to be put in quotation marks, but words unfamiliar to a character could be put in quotation marks. Always use double quotation marks for AmE and typically use singles for BrE (doubles are acceptable).
Example: Yeah, I guess he was on time. If three hours late is “on time” in his book.
Andy said his brother “skived off” two days this week. I didn’t tell him I had to check the Internet to figure out what he meant.
Made-up words or new words: Use quotation marks for the first use of made-up words. After that, no special punctuation is necessary.
Example: He’s a “rattlescallion,” a cross between a rapscallion and a snake.
Words as words: We often use italics for words used as words, but we can also use quotation marks.
Example: He used “I” all the time, as if his opinion carried more weight than anyone else’s.
When you’re deciding between italics and quotation marks, always remember the rules of clarity and consistency: make it clear for the reader and be consistent throughout the story. If you have to make a choice that doesn’t fit a rule or you choose to flout a rule, do so on purpose and do so each time the circumstances are the same. Include unusual words or special treatment of words in your style sheet so everyone dealing with your manuscript works from the same foundation.
Rewrite any wording that is likely to confuse the reader or that can be read multiple ways. There’s always a way to clear up confusing phrasing, often more than one way. Reduce distracting punctuation and italics when you can, but use both quotation marks and italics when necessary.
Put writing rules to work for your stories.
This article is a long one, but I hope it proves useful. Let me know if I omitted a category you wondered about.