There are several reasons why many writers are confused about when a title should be quoted, italicized, or underlined. One reason is generational, meaning that some writers who are younger are at a disadvantage – or my advanced age provides me with an advantage. What you might not know is that two of those three options are the same thing. No, of course that doesn’t make sense, not yet. Have a seat, and let’s do some learnin’.
Two notes: First, I’m going to use boldface in conjunction with italics because text appears then when italicized. The boldface is only to help it stand out. Second, I hope this is information you already know and don’t need to hear from me. However, based on much of what I read, well, some of you need to learn this.
Step 1 – stop underlining
Unless you’re an older and hopefully wiser person, like me, you probably have no idea why you will occasionally see titles underlined. You youngsters have probably never typed on anything other than a computer and using a word processor, and I’m very happy for you. I’m so happy you never had to slug away at a manual or electric typewriter or figure out how to squeeze a few missing letters into a word in the middle of a line. I’m just thrilled that you never had to erase typed characters or use that white-out tape to cover up mistakes. Isn’t life wonderful for you? It’s like rainbows and unicorns bringing you balloons and cookies.
What you also didn’t learn was that those typewriters didn’t have italics, but they did have underlining. That’s what we used instead of italics, and that’s why you should never underline a title – because now everything has italics. Except Facebook. Eventually, some electric typewriters had italics, but they were the more expensive machines used in business settings and not usually what anyone had at home. So let’s be clear – no more underlining the titles of anything.
Step 2 – size matters!
To start simply, it goes like this: big things get italics, and small things get quotes. However, what qualifies as big or small? That’s easy. Usually.
Jaws, Pulp Fiction, Toy Story, Interstellar
Books, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry collections, children’s books, etc.
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh
60 Minutes, Friends, The Family Guy
Born to Run, Meet the Beatles, Bing Crosby’s Christmas Classics
Magazines and newspaper names
Time, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Sun-Times
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” “A Trip to the Moon” “Tin Toy”
“The Monkey’s Paw” “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day”
Chapters or sections within a book, though they don’t need anything
“The Book of Genesis” from The Bible
Poems both contained in a collection or individual
“Sonnet 18” “Because I could not stop for Death”
Episodes of a television show
“The One in Which Ross Does Something Stupid” from Friends
“PTV” from The Family Guy
Songs, both contained in an album/CD or as singles
“Thunder Road” from Born to Run
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” from Meet the Beatles
“White Christmas” from Bing Crosby’s Christmas Classics
Stories contained in newspapers and magazines
“Prescribing Vegetables, Not Pills” – from the New York Times
“US Drug-Overdose Deaths Spike” from Time
Step 3 – when do we actually use these?
Although book titles get italics, we don’t print it that way on the actual cover. We normally only use it when we’re writing and mentioning a title.
Catch-22 is one of my favorite books, but the film stunk.
Thanks for reading “Working Girl,” my new short story.
“Thriller” is the best song on Michael Jackson’s most popular album, also called Thriller.
When I submit queries to agents and publishers, I am always careful to italicize the titles of my novels. However, in subsequent emails that have gone back and forth, the publisher representative always puts my titles in ALL CAPS. I’m not sure why, perhaps to make it stand out, but I don’t care.
I’m just happy they accepted my work.