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Background

I was looking up the rule about italicizing foreign phrases and found an apparent consensus that the criterion is if the phrase is familiar. Well, who gets to decide that? I know perfectly well what "fait accompli" means, and I don't know French. So I recently chose to not italicize it, but someone had a different opinion.

Here is a summary of my findings.

  • Wikipedia suggests:

    Loanwords or phrases that have common use in English, however—praetor, Gestapo, samurai, esprit de corps, e.g., i.e.—do not require italicization. If looking for a good rule of thumb, do not italicize words that appear in Merriam-Webster Online.

  • The University of Minnesota recommends:

    Italicize isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to the reader.

  • Capital Community College Foundation Guide to Grammar & Writing says:

    If a word or phrase has become so widely used and understood that it has become part of the English language — such as the French "bon voyage" or the abbreviation for the latin et cetera, "etc." — we would not italicize it. Often this becomes a matter of private judgment and context. For instance, whether you italicize the Italian sotto voce depends largely on your audience and your subject matter.

  • University of Sussex Guide to Punctuation notes:

    If you are not sure which foreign words and phrases are usually written in italics, consult a good dictionary.

"Fait accompli" appears unitalicized in Merriam-Webster Online. I was not able to find an online English dictionary that was different. I don't have access to the OED.

Question

Is "fait accompli" likely to be familiar to readers here? Is this a good guideline to use for choosing whether to italicize it? Or is the fact that it is in English dictionaries unitalicized enough? Or is the fact that it is in English dictionaries—at all—enough?

Note: I recognize that italics are appropriate when referring to a phrase rather than instantiating it—in any language. I've instead chosen in this question to use quotes to clearly separate the issues.

Edits to correct grammar welcome. No comments necessary.

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Are you certain that Merriam-Webster Online shows any terms italicized? –  nohat Sep 27 '10 at 21:45
    
That's a good point. I don't know if it does. Do you have a better resource for us? Also, the question of familiarity of a term could be answered in other ways than whether a particular dictionary italicizes it. Wikipedia suggested that the mere presence of the word in Merriam-Webster Online would indicate that no italicization was necessary. –  ErikE Sep 27 '10 at 21:49
    
Style guides advocating italicisation don't seem to realise that some people still use handwriting on occasion. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 13 '13 at 21:11
    
@Edwin I suppose underlining; capitalization; writing implement pressure, color, and thickness; or other decorations have to be used. –  ErikE Aug 14 '13 at 6:48
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5 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I think this is a case where authors can decide for themselves where to draw the line. Or, if the writing is for a certain publication, the editors will have a policy for whether a given word should or should not be italicized.

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Thanks for contributing. What would you do on this site? –  ErikE Oct 3 '10 at 16:52
    
I would leave it to the author to make the call and keep it consistent within question thread. (If you want to get more particular, you can create a question about this in meta.) –  Kosmonaut Oct 3 '10 at 17:31
    
I was asking about the case of you being the author, on this site. –  ErikE Oct 4 '10 at 0:46
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I italicize words I am discussing in questions on this site; so, for that reason, I don't want to italicize other borrowed words or phrases whose use is incidental to the topic at hand. –  Kosmonaut Oct 4 '10 at 3:52
    
@ErikE: 'Thanks for contributing. What would you do on this site?' _Disagree, as a rule. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 13 '13 at 14:06
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Since fait accompli functions in English as one word, but is written as two, I'd be inclined to keep it italicised. If nothing else, it's a handy hint for anyone who decides to look it up in a dictionary that they should look up the two words together.

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The OED has examples both in italicized form (from 1845) and non-italicized form (from 1895). If you are using naturalization as a standard, it lists fait accompli as a "not naturalized, alien" word.

However, I'd agree with you that a word's presence in dictionaries isn't a great gauge of how well an audience understands it as native. Even so, I'd assume that most readers here would be relatively familiar with fait accompli.

And I doubt there's much you could do to change this.

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I think it depends on who your target is. Ask yourself if they would know for sure or not and write accordingly.

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Well, if you think they would not know, don't write it. Language is a means of communication, not showing off. ;) –  malach Oct 21 '10 at 7:24
    
No no, it's definitely both. –  Jason Orendorff Mar 24 '11 at 17:59
    
Your target may be a broad section of the public, with no common expectation on this issue. –  TrevorD May 18 '13 at 23:26
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Words are italicized because they are borrowed words or phrases. It shows that they don't originate from an English word or term.

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