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In which cases is a word, or a group of words written in italics?
Is italics used in specific contexts, or it is quite normal to write words in italics?

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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The Wikipedia page on Italic type gives a pretty good overview, along with some examples.

  • Emphasis: "Smith wasn't the only guilty party, it's true".
  • The titles of works that stand by themselves, such as books (including those within a larger series), albums, plays, or periodicals: "He wrote his thesis on The Scarlet Letter". Works that appear within larger works, such as short stories, poems, or newspaper articles, are not italicized, but merely set off in quotation marks.
  • The names of ships: "The Queen Mary sailed last night."
  • Foreign words, including the Latin binomial nomenclature in the taxonomy of living organisms: "A splendid coq au vin was served"; "Homo sapiens".
  • Using a word as an example of a word rather than for its semantic content (see use-mention distinction): "The word the is an article".
    • Using a letter or number mentioned as itself:
      • John was annoyed; they had forgotten the h in his name once again.
      • When she saw her name beside the 1 on the rankings, she finally had proof that she was the best.
  • Introducing or defining terms, especially technical terms or those used in an unusual or different way: "Freudian psychology is based on the ego, the super-ego, and the id."; "An even number is one that is a multiple of 2."
  • Sometimes in novels to indicate a character's thought process: "This can't be happening, thought Mary."
  • Algebraic symbols (constants and variables) are conventionally typeset in italics.
  • Symbols for physical quantities and mathematical constants: "The speed of light, c, is approximately equal to 3.00×108 m/s." I've seen all of these usage cases between my reading of fiction and non-fiction texts. In particular, I've seen several authors switch to italics for the length of one or even multiple paragraphs to represent the thoughts of a character. Within such paragraphs, text that is normally italicised is put in regular/upright (Roman) type.

(See also this About.com page, though it says very similar things to the Wiki page.)

Hope that helps.

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Noldorin, please forgive me for editing your answer to italicize as in the original quotation in Wikipedia. I think it is a lot clearer this way and I hope you will agree. –  nohat Aug 18 '10 at 17:02
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@nohat, I don't think you need to apologize. This is a collaborative site, after all. I'm glad to see at least one person taking advantage of their powers on this site. –  mmyers Aug 18 '10 at 17:05
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@nohat: Oh, there's no need. I actually appreciate you doing so. :) Collaboration is a positive (too rarely used) aspect of StackExchange, as mmyers suggests. The idea of putting italics back in just slipped my mind; no doubt it's clearer. –  Noldorin Aug 18 '10 at 20:48
    
One thing I've seen fairly often in novels is authors reversing the italic/roman distinction for introductions. –  TRiG Nov 14 '10 at 16:06
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Off the top of my head, italics are used for:

  • book titles
  • foreign words
  • Latin names of species

In the first and second case, you could just as well enclose the word(s) in quotes (without using italics). The third one seems to be set in stone.

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It’s part of how taxonomic binomials are always written is that both the genus (which is always capitalized) and the species (which never is) are set in italic in the Latin alphabet, no matter what else is happening around them. One also sets the subspecies name in italic if present, but higher taxa are set in roman. –  tchrist Aug 28 '12 at 4:54
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The other answers have many good examples of when to use italics, but I wanted to emphasize that on this site in particular I most frequently use italics to clarify the use–mention distinction—that is, to mention a word rather than use it. Of course, in the previous sentence I used italics to emphasize and not for the use–mention distinction. Quotation marks are also frequently used to clarify the use–mention distinction, but I tend to reserve them for mentioning multi-word phrases and use italics for single words.

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