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Marking Text—Choosing Between Italics and Quotation Marks

May 12, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 7, 2014

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.

________________________

Plain Text

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.

books

TV shows

radio shows

movies

plays

operas and ballets

long poems

long musical pieces (such as symphonies)

newspapers

magazines

journals

works of art (paintings, sculptures, photographs)

pamphlets

reports

podcasts

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, muchocoup 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.

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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

songs

short stories

short poems (most poems)

newspaper, magazine, and journal articles

blog articles

podcast episodes

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.

***

Tags: , ,     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation

30 Responses to “Marking Text—Choosing Between Italics and Quotation Marks”

  1. EXCELLENT and timely tips. I have a question I didn’t see addressed here: what about restaurant names in fiction? Italicized the first time and then roman font after? Italicized with every usage? I’d love to know! Thank you.

    • Heather, restaurants are just names, and so they are only capitalized—no italics on any use. (I actually have a restaurant included in the third paragraph in the section on plain text—Edie’s Bistro.)

      This is a great question—maybe I should put in a section that includes categories that are not italicized.

      • Thank you so much! That clears things up for the book I’m about to release. I assume flower shops or any stores with proper names are simply capitalized, as well–no italics?

        • You’re exactly right, just capitalized. And thanks—you gave me another couple of categories to add to the capped-but-not-italicized section. Keep asking—it’s great to get all that info out there in one place.

          • Avoid italics like the plague. They are hard to read and slow down your story. Once you get rid of them, you will realize how bad they are.

            Words from a publisher:
            ON USING ITALICS FOR THOUGHTS
            December 28, 2011
            Don’t.
            Some of you will send me examples of good writers who use italics for thoughts. Good writers can do anything. It is true. But a good writer does not need to use italics for thoughts. A good editor should help him/her get rid of them. I do. A good writer doesn’t even need to use italics for emphasis very often – which makes them more effective when s/he does.

  2. Great post. This will answer a lot of questions that come up in our critique group. I’ll be posting the link to this on my blog. Thanks!

  3. I would add:
    Don’t use italics at all–except for the titles of books. They are hard to read and slow the reader down. Don’t use semicolons. They are HATED by many editors. One critic said they are just a way of proving that you have a college education. Ha! Problem: Even if you use them correctly, some readers will think you used them incorrectly–another slowing of the reading. In my opinion, two single sentences are stronger.

    Also, have at least ten proofreaders. I had over twenty for “Finding Sagrado,” and whatever its merits, the writing is clean and polished, thanks to my readers and critics.

    Here’s my website: I’m offering a free pdf download to anyone who will read and review it (any rating on the review. It doesn’t matter. Just be honest).
    http://xlibrishub.com/wd/us/532678/

    • Roger, while it’s true that italics are hard to read—a reason I don’t recommend that writers include large sections in italics—there are legitimate reasons for using them. The same is true for semicolons. Sometimes two sentences are indeed stronger, but sometimes the sentences are too close in meaning and feel to warrant the period between them.

      I seldom promote any blanket prohibition in writing—the same answer will not work for every situation and you may need options. You don’t want to limit yourself simply because of what others have said or for reasons that worked or didn’t work for them. Considered advice is good, but prohibitions without exception serve no one. Any writer can make almost anything work and work well.

      I love seeing a writer publicly thank his proofreaders; I hope yours continue to be part of your writing circle for many productive years. Proofreaders and beta readers are worth their weight in gold or chocolate.

      Thank you for giving us something to think about.

      • That’s true, and in the last novel I read–”The Ghosts of Belfast” by Stuart Nevill I saw some semicolons. Ha! I guess I’m brainwashed against them. I didn’t like them. I particularly hate italics for thoughts. There’s no need.

        Why did he look at me that way, she thought.
        I had over a hundred semicolons and exclamation points. I took out all the semicolons and left only a handful of exclamation points–only for screams.
        “Look out!” he yelled.

        It’s funny how much heat is generated in a discussion of grammar. Ha!

  4. Feel free to write me:
    farcity101 at hotmail.com
    if you would like me to send you the pdf file.

  5. Alex Hurst says:

    Thank you so much for all of this! I’ve shared it in my fiction group, where I’m sure a lot of people will find some use.

    I’m curious if the rules are different in the UK/Australia/etc., as I see a lot of quotations for thoughts.

    Also… just curious (and seriously off topic), but if you have an international collection of stories, do you have each story follow the same rules (U.S., let’s say, with double quotes instead of single, U.S. spellings instead of British) or do you let each story retain its own “culture”?

    • Alex, I’ve also seen writers use quotation marks for thoughts, both in AmE and BrE, but I know of no standard source or authority that recommends that quotation marks be used this way. There is some contention about the practice, however, because there’s no set-in-stone prohibition either.

      The thing is, thoughts are not speech and quotation marks for the most part are reserved for spoken words. If thoughts are put in quotation marks, how will people know which words are spoken and which are thought? Then you have to add even more dialogue tags and thought tags.

      Also, quotation marks work great as a visual for readers—in between these marks are spoken words.

      Also, the trend in today’s writing is away from overuse of punctuation. Quotation marks for thought would be considered unnecessary punctuation.

      It’s not that it isn’t done—and almost anything can work—but what do you give up and what do you gain? Is it worth a fight to argue (with agents and publishers) about quotation marks for thoughts when there are other legitimate and quite recognizable ways to convey thoughts?

      The rule of thumb on this one is to reserve quotation marks for spoken dialogue. As far as I can tell, that’s true for both BrE and AmE.

      —————

      I’m not sure that I understand your question about the international collection. International meaning the stories have already been published in different countries and they are now being brought together into one book? If that’s your question, I’m guessing you have two options. You could let books stand as they were written—which would give readers a taste of other cultures and styles—or you could edit for the country in which the new combined volume will be published.

      If the books were published before or if they weren’t but you want to promote the fact that writers are from different parts of the world, I would let existing spelling and word choices stand. Punctuation is a different issue. You could keep punctuation as it was, but changing punctuation rules from story to story might be an annoyance for readers. Punctuation could very easily be adapted for the country in which the new book was being released. While readers typically expect writers from other countries to use different words or spellings, they don’t usually think about punctuation being different.

      This doesn’t mean you’d have to change the punctuation in some of the stories, but the option is worth considering.

      I don’t know that there is any hard rule about this issue. A publisher would have an opinion and/or guidelines, but beyond that, for those publishing their own books, the choice is theirs.

      If that’s not what you were asking about, let me know.

  6. Mira Prabhu says:

    Hello Beth — just want to thank you for yet another well-written and extremely useful post. I live in India and am “retired”, which means I cannot afford western editorial rates — so this kind of material/guide is vital to my novel writing. Thanks and look forward to more…

    • Mira, I wish you the best of success with your writing. Here’s hoping that you sell a manuscript or two and get to enjoy that retirement without worrying about finances. I’m so glad the article was a useful one.

      • Mira Prabhu says:

        Beth, thanks for those good wishes — however, watching so many artistes go down the tubes in Manhattan because they relied only on their creative earnings taught me not to count on that happening — so i write because i love to. You must be very busy, i know, but i would love to send you an e-version of the metaphysical novel (set in ancient India – Whip of the Wild God–A Novel of Tantra in Ancient India) for free if you would care to go through it. It has been getting 5 star reviews, but alas, as you must know, you cannot get rich on the 3% profit on sales that Amazon print gives you…

  7. Here is an example from my novel “Finding Sagrado” where italics are needed: Was a strong like the same as love?”

    I put “like” in italics to make the sentence absolutely clear. I didn’t want it
    to read:
    “Was a strong like…” Without the italics, a reader might go back and think there is a typo.

  8. Peter Pollak says:

    Excellent column, Beth. It never hurts to be reminded of the subtleties of our language because as you say, it’s best to eliminate opportunities for an agent or editor to question the writer’s competence.

    • I agree, Peter. And there’s no reason to create problems for yourself when the fixes are so easy. Some areas of writing aren’t quite as easy to handle, but the ones that are fairly simple to deal with can be mastered by all writers.

      • One great way to fix an awkward paragraph is to delete it. Ha! The reader doesn’t know what was deleted. Maybe you were trying to put too much in the paragraph? Ask yourself if the paragraph is really needed.

  9. Kim Penfold says:

    My characters listen to and sing along with a few songs in my novel. So if I am mentioning a song by Bruce Springstein. I should write it as; Dandcing In The Dark. Not; ”Dancing in the Dark.” Italic or not?

    Also, when they are singing along, I have written it all in capitals. Eg;
    “HET LITTLE GIRL, IS YOUR DADDY HOME?
    DID HE GO AND LEAVE YOU ALL ALONE … ETC.
    Is this wrong?

    • Kim, song titles do get quotation marks, so “Dancing in the Dark” is correct. No italics.

      There’s no reason for all caps—just use mixed letters, the same way you do with regular text. The words of songs are still characters speaking.

      However, there are restrictions for copyrighted text. So unless you get permission from Bruce Springsteen to use his words, readers shouldn’t be heard singing his words. While it’s usually okay to quote a line or two from a book or movie, single lines from songs and poems make up a significant part of the song or poem, and the copyright holder may be ticked off by your use of his or her words.

      Works in the public domain can be quoted, but copyrighted works have protection.

      You can mention the name of a song or poem, but you don’t want to use the text. A workaround is to create a song or poem of your own.

      I’m working on an article concerning this issue that I hope to get up soon.

      Does that answer your questions?

  10. sina says:

    love your long technical posts. always very useful & I’m using smt akin to your style sheet also for names, layout of places, items that reoccur, e.g. the cars (model, colour, general condition, etc). cheers!

  11. How do I treat a program that is held here at our large hospital?
    The program is called ( made up )
    We want you to get better soon
    sponsored by the department of Internal Medicine.
    Do I put the program name in quotation marks, italic or plain text?

    Thanks !!

    • Beverly, I would say that typically you’d put the name of the program in caps—Our cutting-edge program—We Want You to Get Better Soon—is sponsored by the department of Internal Medicine.

      Yet, you may have some options. Will this line be in a letter to donors? In e-mails to staff? In public promotional materials?

      While you wouldn’t use anything else if you were writing fiction, you may want to consider italics for real-world purposes. You probably want the text to stand out, and mixed caps and italics would be useful for such a purpose. That or a different font (a change in style or in color).

      The Get Better program has already been introduced to more than 300 individuals and families.

      Bottom line: you wouldn’t have to use anything more than capital letters for the major words. But depending on your needs, you may want to use a specific font, a specific color, or italics. You don’t want the words blending in with the surrounding text in promotional materials—you want readers to see the program name as the program name.

      Does that help?

  12. Deborah says:

    Thank you for all the information you provide in the blog. Will you please clarify how the name of a house (i.e., an historic residence) is treated? Just capitals? Italics? Quotation marks? Thanks so much.

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