I'm writing a fiction novel, and I'm not quite sure about the rules on italics.

Are the following italicized correctly?

  • John Doe, or Big John as he liked to be called, went to the market.
  • The item in his hand, which he called a tablet, was a powerful computer.
  • He wasn’t comfortable around rich people whom he called fancy folks.

The context is narration within a novel. Edit: See answer by Silenus below. Edit: Title changed to make it easier to search.

  • Possible duplicate of Style Guide: Bold, Italic, or Quotes When I Want to Emphasize Something
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 4:51
  • 1
    @Rathony: I don't think that italicizing "words used as words" (as The Chicago Manual of Style refers to the practice) is the same as using italics for emphasis; it's more of a way of identifying something as a newly introduced term. In any case, that type of italicized word or phrase seems to be what this question is primarily about, so I don't think it's a duplicate of the question you suggest.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 6:18
  • @SvenYargs I understand your point. How about this question? Is one allowed to use capitalization for emphasis?. I think if it is not a duplicate, it is primarily-opinion-based as the linked question.
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 6:22
  • 1
    @Rathony: Again, I don't think so. The poster is asking a style question about whether and how to use italics to indicate that a word is being referred to as a word—not as the idea that the word normally conveys. There may be a previous question about "words used as words," but neither of the two you've suggested is it. At this point, too, the question has drawn a couple of pretty solid answers. I'd be inclined to let it stand unless I found an exact duplicate. (The header could use some work to make it more meaningful in a search, however.)
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 6:29
  • 1
    @SvenYargs: I edited the title to make it more meaningful in searches.
    – fwr
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 19:47

2 Answers 2


The verb "called" has an appellative use and a non-appellative use. In the former, specific words are identified by which something is called. In the latter, no specific words are mentioned. (1) is an example of an appellative use and (2) is an example of a non-appellative use.

  1. She called me "stupid."
  2. She called me stupid.

In the appellative case, the words specified must be marked as occurring metalinguistically. That is, quotation marks or italics should be used.

All of your examples seem to be appellative, so you probably want the italics, except, perhaps, on the first one, involving Big John. This is because of the structure: "Big John" is not occurring in the standard object position of "called." I think that one might work without italics but I would include them for emphasis and consistency.


Silenus pretty much has it down but I think it would be helpful to state the general use of italics in narrative writing that I've seen.

Unless the person speaking is placing some kind of special emphasis on that word or phrase it's not necessary.

I've generally seen it used in the following ways:

  • "Oh that's real mature," she teased. (The use of sarcasm.)
  • "Oh God... Sounds to me like it's inside the facility." (A state of distress or disbelief.)
  • The book was eloquently titled Magic Chickens and Where To Find Them: A Guide to Avoiding Fowl Play. (The title of a book.)
  • "Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death Must answer me These questions three Ere the other side he see." "Ask me your questions bridgekeeper, I am not afraid." (This example has two: Stop! is spoken in a forceful and commanding way. The rest is singing or the reading of poetry.)
  • (Displaying another language that is unusual. For example reading an ancient inscription off of an object.)

It's generally just used in order to get the readers attention about a certain idea that may be critical to the story or that part of the story. For example, in the case of a riddle you may want it to stick in the reader's head for later. It is still subjective and up to you but these are ways that I've personally seen italics used in narrative.

Answering your other two examples,

John Doe, or Big John as he liked to be called, went to the market.

He wasn’t comfortable around rich people whom he called fancy folks.

I'd use quotes in these situations. They're subjective references formed by other people. They're not terms everybody agrees on and personal nicknames for something but either for the purpose of sharing information or having no alternative you use those terms; i.e. 'Those are the kind of people he calls "fancy folks". I don't see what the big deal is.'

The second example doesn't need italics unless there's something weird about the word tablet.

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