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.


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.

  • 2
    Are you certain that Merriam-Webster Online shows any terms italicized?
    – nohat
    Sep 27, 2010 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, 2010 at 21:49
  • Style guides advocating italicisation don't seem to realise that some people still use handwriting on occasion. Aug 13, 2013 at 21:11
  • @Edwin I suppose underlining; capitalization; writing implement pressure, color, and thickness; or other decorations have to be used.
    – ErikE
    Aug 14, 2013 at 6:48
  • This really belongs on Writing now. Apr 9, 2015 at 23:30

6 Answers 6


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.

  • Thanks for contributing. What would you do on this site?
    – ErikE
    Oct 3, 2010 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, 2010 at 17:31
  • I was asking about the case of you being the author, on this site.
    – ErikE
    Oct 4, 2010 at 0:46
  • 2
    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, 2010 at 3:52
  • @ErikE: 'Thanks for contributing. What would you do on this site?' _Disagree, as a rule. Aug 13, 2013 at 14:06

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.


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.


Here's one more perspective. Turabian/Chicago (a very good style guide!) says:

"Italicize isolated words and phrases in foreign languages likely to be unfamiliar to readers of English, and capitalize them as in their language. ... Do not italicize foreign terms familiar enough to appear in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary." p. 312

"Fait accompli" does, strictly speaking, "appear" in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary--and the formatting of the inclusion (here) suggests to me that it has, indeed, its own entry. (Although I said before that there was no independent entry in the volume, I now have my doubts.)

The New Yorker doesn't italicize "fait accompli"; if you want to follow Chicago style to the letter, you shouldn't, either. But I think your choice would be defensible either way.


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

  • 1
    Well, if you think they would not know, don't write it. Language is a means of communication, not showing off. ;)
    – malach
    Oct 21, 2010 at 7:24
  • No no, it's definitely both. Mar 24, 2011 at 17:59
  • Your target may be a broad section of the public, with no common expectation on this issue.
    – TrevorD
    May 18, 2013 at 23:26

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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