Writing 3.9 – Quotes, Italics, and Underlines


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.

Big Things:

Feature-length films
     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

Television shows
     60 Minutes, Friends, The Family Guy

Music CD’s/Albums
     Born to Run, Meet the Beatles, Bing Crosby’s Christmas Classics

Magazines and newspaper names
     Time, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Sun-Times

Small Things:

Short films
     “A Charlie Brown Christmas” “A Trip to the Moon” “Tin Toy”

Short stories
     “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.

17 thoughts on “Writing 3.9 – Quotes, Italics, and Underlines

  1. Ahh, so nice to find out I’m old, too. 🙂 On my blog, I often italicize quotes to make them stand out, but then I have to underline the book they’re from to make it different. Hopefully the grammar police won’t come after me with their 9mm knitting needles!


  2. Hi,
    Been a while since I commented, although I’ve been reading your posts. I’m so glad you write these grammar posts, but I wish there was some way to get them to people–bloggers–who need them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to write a note in the comments regarding usage, sentence structure, spelling and multiple other problems blithely published by writers who have at least high school diplomas. If they’re not proofreading or aware of their mistakes, how can anyone be sure the info they’re offering is reliable?

    • i used to write comments like that, and most of the people for whom i did that were appreciative. but then someone got a little unhappy about it, so i stopped. let them find out for themselves, i guess. but i have always offered to read anything for anyone who might want some proofreading.

  3. Honestly, I think this is a matter of style, and as such it’s not set in concrete. These may be good and valuable suggestions, and they may even be found in the “Chicago Manual of Style” – or some other manual, who knows. But they are not rules. The ONLY unbreakable style rule, in my opinion, is consistency. If you do something in a certain way once, that’s the way you should do it every time – at least in the given document.

    • the reason these are rules and not a matter of style is exactly what you said – consistency – but universal consistency. if i follow what i have specified, and if you do the opposite, readers will be confused. if you and i do something consistently, but what we do is the opposite of each other, then there is no consistency for readers.

      there are other things of course than can be a matter of style and can vary from one writer to another, but this issue is not a good one to be left up to the individual.

  4. Good point about universal consistency. That’s the reason Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary…although he played around with words himself. But inconsistency is not a matter of style, just ignorance or laziness. Misplaced modifiers are killers in recipes or diy instructions.

  5. Thank you for this. I thought I knew, however, I needed to check just to be sure. I still have my mother’s manual typewriter. If I ever decided that I needed to do a mob hit, it would be the perfect thing to tie to someone’s ankle to sink them to the bottom and keep them there.

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