The use of italics in academic writing

How to use italics in your thesis and essay writing

It is essential for academic authors to understand when and how italics are used in academic writing. They are used in multiple places and serve a key objective: emphasising a phrase or sentence to attract the attention of the reader.

Italics can be used in the main body of the piece of writing or its titles/sub-headings.

However, it is important to note that editorial styles vary; hence, the use of italics is very much subject to the specific guidelines of the journal publisher or university.

This article presents a one-stop guide to the use of italics in dissertations, essays, theses, and journal articles. 

Using italics for titles and names

Titles, which appear in most academic works, are used for books, films, plays, radio and television programmes, works of art, musical collections, newspapers, and periodicals. All should be in italics; for example, Great Expectations, Hamlet, The Sky at Night, The Times, The Mona Lisa. Italic type is also used for the specific names of objects such as ships (Queen Mary 2) and legal cases (Brown v Smith). Although titles of books are in italics, any reference to the title of a chapter should be in roman type. Similarly, the title of an episode of a television series should be in roman type; for example, ‘The Sky at Night, Chapter 12: Observing Jupiter’. 

In unpublished books, italic type is not used. Care should be taken with musical titles, as the title of album is in italics; for example Camelot, but an individual song should be in roman type within quotation marks, ‘What Do the Simple Folk Do?’

Scientific terms, particularly biological nomenclature, are usually in italics, but there are some exceptions so it is important to consult appropriate guide books. Some titles do not use italic type, such as books of the Bible or chapters of the Quran.

In some cases, there is no consensus as to whether italics (or quotation marks) should be used. This is particularly true of traditional board games such as Monopoly. The appropriate style guide should be consulted in such cases. However, it is generally accepted that italics are used when a dissertation or other article refers to a video game. When citing online resources, titles of websites should be in roman type, whereas a web page title should be in roman type, but within quotation marks.  

Using italics as part of an editorial style

All academic writing, be it a peer-reviewed article, a dissertation, or an essay, must follow a specific editorial style. In most cases, italic type is used to emphasise a particular word or phrase. For example, ‘The decision to proceed should be made after the results have been obtained and not before.’ 

However, italics should never be overused, as the emphasis will lose its effect. Sometimes bold type is used to indicate emphasis, but consistent practice should be followed in accordance with the relevant style guide.

Italics can also be used in a dissertation, thesis, or other academic document when a new word or term is introduced which forms a key part of the argument presented. For example, ‘This chapter will discuss the procedure for conducting the experiment.’ There is no need to use italics for any subsequent mention of ‘procedure’. Sometimes quotation marks are used in place of italics. It is also conventional to use italics when referring to a letter; for example, ‘X marks the spot’.

In addition, it is standard practice to use italic type for foreign words; for example, mutatis mutandis or iftaa. Sometimes the English translation is given in roman type in brackets after the foreign word. 

However, a foreign word should be italicised only if it is considered unfamiliar in English. Words such as per annum or café have been assimilated into the English language and need not be italicised. This may be a matter of personal opinion, but it is important to consult a reliable dictionary if you are unsure.

Some referencing systems and style guides require lengthy quotations to be written in italics, rather than in quotation marks.  

Be consistent

Finally, consistency is vital. Following the relevant style guide will assist in this regard, but even if this is not the case, great care should be taken to ensure consistent use of italics throughout your work.

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