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I am writing an essay about German history, and I'm unsure whether German words should be italicized or not. The essay is in English, but I use words like Reichstag (German Parliament Building), Führer (Hitler's title, means "leader"), and Reich (kingdom). I'm seeing conflicting sources online that say:

  • italicize first use of the word
  • italicize every time
  • don't italicize
  • italicize if they would be unknown by the reader

Basically, should I italicize German words, proper nouns, or names (and to what extent)?

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If you are writing to a style guide, then follow it above anything I say below (though note that it may give some leeway).

Because your theme is German history, the reader is going to expect a certain number of German words to be used, and that context reduces the "foreign-ness", so to speak compared to if e.g. I used a Latin phrase somewhere in this answer, where it's not necessarily to be expected.

For that reason, I would not recommend the style of italicising every use of a German word in this case, though it's a reasonable style choice otherwise.

The style of not italicising words you could reasonably expect the vast majority of your audience to understand, also makes sense here.

The nature of your essay means that as well as having foreign words used so regularly, you will often be explaining them. E.g.:

The Reichstag (parliament) was replaced in 1933 by another institution, also called the Reichstag which served only to ratify the decisions of the Führer (dictator, literally "leader").

In the sentence above, the German words Reichstag and Führer are not just italicised as foreign words, but also as mentioned words: they aren't just used as they would in a sentence otherwise, but actually examined as words with definitions and/or translations given.

And I could see this being the case with most German words you would use in such an essay. Once introduced though, some could be so heavily used that italicising each case would overwhelm. So, for this sort of essay I'd recommend ignoring the foreignness entirely, but ensuring that words are explained to the reader as they arise, and italicised for that reason instead.

This is only one possible approach though, all the conflicting advice you give are also valid styles, though I've tried to advise as to your particular reason for using German words. Again, if you have a style-guide you need to write to, it overrules all of this.

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I'd italicise any foreign word or phrase that wasn't a proper noun, and if the meaning isn't implicit in the context I'd explain the word or phrase after the first instance of use, but not in subsequent instances.

My feeling is that explanations in text are preferable to in parentheses.

I would not italicise proper nouns, as these are the names of things that are the same in any language.

In the case of explaining the meaning of proper nouns that appear in a foreign context, I'd base my decision on who my audience was. For example, most adult readers would recognise the word 'Fuhrer', but kids in grade three probably wouldn't. So I'd include a brief description of the Fuhrer if I was writing for kids, or for a very broad audience.

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