I have a piece of writing about an orchestra, a choir and a conductor. In the piece are numerous Italian words.

There is one sentence that reads:

Singing fortissimo for a "Dies Irae" was tremendous therapy...

The writer has put Dies Irae in double quotation marks and fortissimo in no quotations nor italics. Earlier on in the piece, there is mention of two pieces of music, which are both in italics.

So, I am confused as to which of these should be in quotation marks and which ones should be in italics. Do the rules change when there is more than one instance that should be either italics or quotation marks, just for clarity?

  • You say "a Dies Irae"... is it a specific one or just a generic one? If it's just the generic term (as there are many pieces with that title) the quotes are correct.
    – Catija
    May 22, 2015 at 19:26
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    Can you please paste all the text you are talking about, and put the quotes and italics in the places they appear. Please edit the question. (You can create italics using the "I" button above the question box) May 22, 2015 at 19:35
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    That phrase doesn't really make sense to me because a singer sings fortissimo in a piece, not for a piece. If the phrase was "singing solo for a...", might make sense. It's probably best if we could see the original quote intact. May 22, 2015 at 19:37
  • I believe @Catija that it is a generic one.
    – Elizabeth
    May 22, 2015 at 19:50
  • After reading all your comments and answers I believe I have my answers. I think that the titles are in quotations and the styles of music like all the issimos are in italics. Thanks everyone.
    – Elizabeth
    May 22, 2015 at 20:11

2 Answers 2


This is a bit opinionated, and it's hard to be definite without seeing the full quotes, but here's an analysis. TLDR: Italics could be arguable for 'fortissimo' and either italics or quotes or neither for 'Dies Irae'.

There are two reasons for italics relevant to us now. 1. Titles and 2. foreign words used as if they were English. Likewise there are two possibly relevant reasons for quote marks: 1. direct quote and 2. reference to the words themselves rather than the concept they represent.

It's arguable that fortissimo should be italicised as a foreign word. However you say that the writer elsewhere chose to use italics for musical titles, and she may have felt that to also use it for fortissimo would be confusing. Fortissimo is well-used enough to be considered an English word.

Dies Irae might well be, and often is, the title of a piece of music. You might write "Mozart's Dies Irae" and use italics to indicate the title. However here "Dies Irae" is not being used as a title - it is being used to refer to a particular kind of musical composition. Talking about "a 'Dies Irae'" indicates this. As such it wouldn't deserve italics. Almost invariably those pieces have the title Dies Irae, so italics might be justified - however again, having used italics specifically for a title elsewhere, the author might decide using them here might be confusing. The author might still want to separate the 'Dies Irae' from the rest of the text, so quotes is justifiable.

To answer your question at the end - yes it is sometimes better to violate the strict rules in order to achieve clarity, and it seems that is what the author has done.


It is not clear whether or not you are under this misapprehension, but to be on the safe side, "Dies Irae" is not Italian. Neither is it "words", as fortissimo is an (Italian) word, it's a (Latin) title. Of a high-medieval poem found in the Requiem, and yes, often fortissimo. Just been listening to Mozart's this evening, funnily enough. Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla..... (Verdi is even louder, though Fauré contrives to make it sweet.) So there is your rule: what's an Italian word and what's a title? Even generic Dies Irae, as opposed to theirs, is a title, of the poem.

  • While Dies Irae is the title of the poem, and also the title of the settings of it that appear in a requiem, it seems to be being used here not as a title, but to meany a particular kind of musical piece (i.e. a setting of the poem). The indefinite article is a good indicator of this. Since it isn't a title I don't believe it deserves italics. May 22, 2015 at 19:56
  • Interesting, of course, but where is the answer to the OP's question? May 22, 2015 at 19:58
  • @Kristina: OP was asking for a rule (of thumb) and I gave her one, although it is clear that DJClayworth subsequently did it better. So I answered the question – just not well, which is surely less reprehensible than not answering it at all? With hindsight, I wish we had asked OP for a great wodge of example.
    – David Pugh
    May 22, 2015 at 20:49
  • I liked your answer but thought it could be a little clearer. :-) May 22, 2015 at 21:13
  • I would have liked to have been able to supply a great wodge of example for you, but the piece of writing is six pages long and because the specific words and titles were scattered throughout it would have been too difficult. You have all been a great help though and I am just about to ask another question about commas on a new question.
    – Elizabeth
    May 22, 2015 at 22:19

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