Italics in Context: Getting More from Word

Close-up of a dictionary entry for the word "italics"

Italics can be applied for various reasons, but it is always with the same goal: to mark text as different in some way. This difference can be a matter of emphasis, or it can indicate the title of a book or movie or other work, the scientific name of a species, or the name of a court case, among other things. Italics may also be used to highlight a key term or a word or phrase from another language.

There are also times when it’s important to understand that italics are not needed. A key term may get italics when it is first introduced but not after that. And many words and phrases that have been borrowed from another language will be familiar enough to readers to be left without italics.

The different ways to use italics can get confusing, which is why we designed The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt—the add-in for Microsoft Word that we introduced to readers of Shop Talk last August—to teach these principles. It won’t find everything. However, it can help with each of the scenarios described above, and it can be customized to match your preferences.

PerfectIt’s Italics Check

Before exploring CMOS, it’s worth understanding how PerfectIt functions on its own.

PerfectIt works by scanning your Word documents for inconsistencies—in hyphenation, spelling, capitalization, numbers, and several other categories. For example, if it finds “long term” in one place and “long-term” in another, it will flag both so you can decide whether either of them needs to be fixed.

For italics, which are less predictable than hyphenation, PerfectIt uses a slightly different approach. Instead of checking everything, PerfectIt looks for a range of common words and phrases borrowed mainly from Latin, French, and German. These are terms that might be italicized according to some style guides but not others, so PerfectIt checks only those terms for consistency.

For example, if the Latin abbreviation “et al.” (and others) is italicized in some places in your document but not others, each instance of the term will be flagged. You’ll get the option to change the ones in regular text to italics:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The Latin phrase “et al.” (and others) is highlighted in the document. To the left, the PerfectIt pane shows two options: “Italics” (selected) and “No italics.”

Or you can change the ones in italics to regular text:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The Latin phrase “et al.” (and others) is highlighted in the document. To the left, the PerfectIt pane shows two options: “Italics” and “No italics” (selected).

In Chicago style, the preference would be for regular text. Which brings us to Chicago Style for PerfectIt.

Italics for Non-English Terms in The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt

According to CMOS 7.53–55, italics should be used for an isolated word or phrase from a language other than English unless it appears in a standard dictionary and would be familiar to most of your readers. A less familiar word or phrase would be italicized. An unfamiliar term that appears frequently in the text might be italicized on first use only.

The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt builds on PerfectIt’s italics check by adding hundreds of terms from Latin, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, and other languages that are likely to appear in an English-language context.

Each of these terms is listed in Merriam-Webster—and therefore likely to be familiar in the context of an English-language document. Nonetheless, even within Merriam-Webster some terms are more familiar than others. The preference in PerfectIt for the more familiar of these is set to “no italics.” Less familiar terms will be flagged only if they are used inconsistently.

None, however, are set to prefer italics. Any list of unfamiliar terms from other languages would be endless. So it’s up to you to customize PerfectIt further (see below) if you’re working with terms from other languages that you want to ensure are italicized.

“Et al.” and other common Latin abbreviations should be familiar to most English speakers, so when Chicago Style is turned on in PerfectIt, it will flag “et al.”—but only when it appears in italics.

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The Latin phrase “et al.” (and others) is highlighted in the document. To the left, the PerfectIt pane defines the term and says that italics are usually preferred; a link offers more from CMOS.

Clicking “Fix” will remove the italics.

Another example of a familiar term is the French phrase “faux pas,” which would also get flagged by Chicago Style for PerfectIt if it appears in italics:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The French phrase “faux pas” is highlighted in the document. To the left, the PerfectIt pane says to use regular text except for emphasis or to refer to it as a phrase; a link offers more from CMOS.

But it’s important to review each term carefully. In this case, if you’re trying to enforce Chicago style, the italics are correct. That’s because a word or phrase referred to as such is an exception—as in “The expression faux pas.” So you’d want to ignore the software’s suggestion in that case.

To help with these rules and suggestions, PerfectIt gives you the option to “See more from CMOS 7.54”—which will bring up advice directly from the Manual:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The French phrase “faux pas” is highlighted in the document. To the left, the PerfectIt pane shows an excerpt from CMOS paragraph 7.54.

If you still want more detail, clicking on any of the red numbers will take you directly to the applicable section in CMOS Online.

“Et al.” and “faux pas” are very common, but what about the legal terms “in absentia,” “in camera,” “in esse,” and “in flagrante delicto”? Or the French “amuse-bouche” or the Spanish “churro” or the Italian “loggia”? Each of those terms is still fairly common, so PerfectIt will flag any of them if they appear in italics.

Other terms in PerfectIt’s check, though they’re listed in Merriam-Webster, are a bit more obscure—for example, the French legal terms “cestui que trust,” “cestui que use,” and “cestui que vie.” PerfectIt is set to check those for consistency only. If you’ve been inconsistent with any of those terms, you will have to use your editorial judgment to decide whether to use italics or regular text—or italics on first use and regular text thereafter.

Terms That Are Always in Italics

CMOS recommends italics for a broad range of categories, including the titles of books and periodicals (and several other types of works), the scientific names for plant and animal species, the names of ships and other vessels, the names of court cases, and lettered rhyme schemes like abab.

Chicago Style for PerfectIt’s italics check includes some representative terms in each category. But it can’t include every title of every work and the name of every ship, species, and court case. Instead, it finds a few common ones in the hope that these will demonstrate the principles of Chicago style.

For example, the title of the novel Middlemarch, if it appears in regular text, will be flagged:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The title “Middlemarch” is highlighted in the document. To the left, the PerfectIt pane says that titles of books are usually italicized.

Some styles put the title of books in quotation marks, as in this example, so editors are likely to see this result in PerfectIt. When you do, you will need not only to click “Fix” (to apply the italics) but also to put your cursor in the text to delete the quotation marks. PerfectIt, like Word’s spelling and grammar checker, makes it easy to do this while you are running the program.

Customizing the Italics Check

Chicago Style for PerfectIt gives editors a lot of leeway to make their own choices. When one of PerfectIt’s suggestions doesn’t apply (as with that italic “faux pas”), you can simply ignore it and click “Next.” But you can also customize PerfectIt by creating a new style based on Chicago and modifying it to reflect your preferences.

Italics are in a separate tab in PerfectIt’s style sheet editor, so it’s easy to add terms and modify your preferences. For example, if you prefer italics for “in absentia,” you can change the setting from “no italics” to “always in italics.” Or if you prefer italics on first use only—or not to check that term at all—those are also options.

Adding terms is just as easy. It would be counterproductive to add thousands of titles of books and other works that should be in italics. But if there are any that come up frequently in your work (as, say, CMOS does at Shop Talk), they’re easy to add. Court cases, species names, the names of ships and other vessels—any of these can be added, with your preferences set however you’d like.

Depending on your needs, you can save multiple versions of Chicago Style for PerfectIt tailored to your house style or to specific projects or clients.

Learn More

Though the italics check in Chicago Style for PerfectIt includes a lot of terms, it’s not designed to find everything. Nor will it always agree with your preferences. Instead, it’s designed to teach the principles of Chicago style and to give you the chance to make good decisions, with help from CMOS.

To learn more about Chicago Style for PerfectIt or to apply it on your next document, click for details.

Close-up of dictionary page for “italics” by TungCheungAdobe Stock.

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