On the Use of Italics, Quotation Marks and Boldface

The need to express emphasis, emotion, private thoughts, titles and proper nouns in written works often results in the rules of English grammar being blurred or broken. If your uncertainty has left you with a combination of italics, boldface, and creative punctuation, use these rules of thumb to bring your writing back to shipshape.

1. In formal writing, stay away from bold.

2. Use italics or quotation marks to denote thoughts. If you use quotation marks, make it clear that the quoted text is not spoken aloud. Examples:

Incorrect: Steve picked up the broken vase. I hate Linda. The vase was priceless. Of course I forgive you.
Correct: Steve picked up the broken vase. I hate Linda. The vase was priceless. “Of course I forgive you.”
Correct: Steve picked up the broken vase. “I hate Linda,” he thought viciously. The vase was priceless! “Of course I forgive you,” he said aloud.
Correct: Steve picked up the broken vase. He really hated Linda. The vase was priceless. “Of course I forgive you,” he said bitterly.

If you do not explain to your reader why you transition from the third person to the first, his unconscious involvement in your story will be interrupted while he does your work for you, and then you will have to start all over drawing him into Steve’s despair.

3. Refrain from overemphasizing dramatic speeches or turns of events. It looks unprofessional and can be very distracting. Let your writing speak for itself. Examples:

Incorrect: Everything finally made sense!! Edward was a VAMPIRE!!!
Correct: Everything finally made sense. Edward was a vampire!
Incorrect: “I hate you, Mom! How did you get so UNCOOL?!?!!”
Correct: “I hate you, Mom! How did you get so uncool?” –If this seems too tame, convey the character’s passion through additional description (Maggie screamed hysterically), not additional punctuation (??!?!!1!).
Incorrect: But it WAS a problem.
Correct: But it was a problem.

4. In general, the titles of longer literary works like books will take italics while shorter ones like sonnets will take quotation marks. Other examples:

I have been watching American Dad all day. I paused between “Stanny Boy and Frantastic” and “Piñata Named Desire” to have dinner.
I have always felt that Help! would be my favorite Beatles album if it weren’t for “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.”
My political ideology runs more along the lines of Common Sense than “I Have a Dream.”
I was surprised that “Dance Teacher Still Cutting the Rug at 86” made the front page of the Los Angeles Times, although I wouldn’t think twice if I saw it in my church’s newsletter.

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