English As She Is Writ - part thirteen

Underlining and italics

Underlining and italics are in essence the same thing. Underlining preceded the italic font and was until the invention of italic typefaces (by two Italian designers in 1501) used in printed material in all the ways that the italic font is used today.

There are two reasons to underline or italicise words: one that is limited, specific and formal; the other the epitome of informality.

I’ll deal first with the formal and specific usage of underlining and italicisation.

It was only a few decades ago, when I worked in book publishing, that in text that was written to be typeset for printing, or that was being marked up by an editor between being written and being typeset, words underlined would be rendered in italics when typeset. As I said: underlining and italics are the same thing.

Therefore in the unlikely event that you are writing or editing text that is to be sent for typesetting you should underline:

  • the names of ships, the titles of plays, films, books, operas, radio and television programmes, ballets, etc;
  • legal cases;
  • the names (which are usually in Latin) of plant and animal species;
  • and foreign words and phrases that are not in common use in English.

Here are examples:                                                                                                                                                    

  • The Daily Mail; the Sun; the News of the World. (But note: The Times.)
  • HMS Gloucester; the good ship Ark Royal; ‘All aboard the Skylark!’
  • War and Peace; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; look it up in the third volume of the Britannica.
  • Cosi fan Tutte; HMS Pinafore; ‘A Day in the Life’ is a song from the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP; ‘Days’ is my favourite poem from the collection entitled The Whitsun Weddings.
  • The restaurant had a fixed-price buffet, but we ordered à la carte. The vegetables were overcooked, but the beef was à point.
  • We took a siesta during the hottest part of the day, but in the evening we went to the park for el paseo. (Note ‘siesta’ not underlined; it has become a common word in English.)
  • The Blair Witch Project; Walt Disney’s Snow White.
  • Radio Four’s Today programme; Monty Python’s Flying Circus; David Boreanaz played Angel in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
  • The 1932 case of Donoghue v Stevenson laid the foundation of the modern law of negligence.
  • The symbiotic relationship between homo sapiens and felis catus.

Note that individual songs, poems, episode titles, and so on, when part of a larger work, are placed within quotation marks.

Editing text for typesetting is now almost entirely obsolete. These days text is written on screen, saved digitally, can be sent electronically to an editor, if editing is required, and can then be sent on to the printer. Much that is written never reaches paper: it remains digital, and is read only on screens. Words and phrases that need to be rendered in italics are simply written in italics. Underlining has become almost entirely redundant.

Therefore for most purposes the way to render the above examples is as follows:

  • The Daily Mail; the Sun; the News of the World. (But note: The Times.)
  • HMS Gloucester; the good ship Ark Royal; ‘All aboard the Skylark!’
  • War and Peace; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; look it up in the third volume of the Britannica.
  • Cosi fan Tutte; HMS Pinafore; ‘A Day in the Life’ is a song from the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP; ‘Days’ is my favourite poem from the collection entitled The Whitsun Weddings.
  • The restaurant had a fixed-price buffet, but we ordered à la carte. The vegetables were overcooked, but the beef was à point.
  • We took a siesta during the hottest part of the day, but in the evening we went to the park for el paseo. (Note ‘siesta’ not in italics – it has become a common word in English.)
  • The Blair Witch Project; Walt Disney’s Snow White.
  • Radio Four’s Today programme; Monty Python’s Flying Circus; David Boreanaz played Angel in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
  • The 1932 case of Donoghue v Stevenson laid the foundation of the modern law of negligence.
  • The symbiotic relationship between homo sapiens and felis catus.

An italic font can also be used when quoting within a body of text a line or paragraph of text from another source. The fact that the quoted text is in a typeface that differs from that of the main text helps to make it clear that the quoted text is imported from elsewhere.

And it can be useful, in an academic work, to italicise the first use of a technical or scientific term that is about to be defined and then used elsewhere in the text.

That just about covers the formal and conventional uses of both underlining and italics.

We now move to the other extreme: the lawless Wild West of punctuation, where there are no rules and anything goes.

There are, I regret to say, grammar tutorials that shamelessly state that underlining and italics can be used to emphasise words and phrases.

I beg you not to be tempted down that primrose path.

Please avoid using underlining and italics for emphasis. As I may have mentioned before, punctuation is no substitute for good writing: your readers should be able to tell from the words you use whether they are to pay particular attention to a certain phrase. Underlining or using italics for emphasis is an attempt to bully your readers into reading your text the way you want them to. But reading is a matter of interpretation, and it is up to the reader to decide where he or she wishes to place emphasis.

Consider these examples:

  • You must see it! It’s so thrilling! I can’t wait for next week’s episode!
  • I told him absolutely not. Under no circumstances is he to see that meddling little trollop again. I simply can’t understand what he sees in her.
  • You must see it: it’s so thrilling. I can’t wait for next week’s episode.
  • I told him absolutely not. Under no circumstances is he to see that meddling little trollop again. I simply can’t understand what he sees in her.

Are the former examples any more expressive than the latter? I would say not. In fact the italic font and the underlining distract the reader from the sense of the words and dictate to the reader how to read the text.

It might be argued that when transcribing or inventing direct speech there is a place for italics – to indicate words that the speaker pronounced with emphasis. I would caution against the use of italics even in such a case: again, I would prefer to give the reader the words alone and let the reader decide how the speaker spoke them.

In sum: you’re highly unlikely ever to need to use underlining; use an italic font for the specific purposes set out above, and not for much else – certainly not for emphasis.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.