Italic font was first used in presses in Italy the 1500s and was designed to replicate the handwritten manuscripts of the time. Italic font was used differentiate informal manuscripts created for leisure reading from formal manuscripts, which used Roman type. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that italic font was used for emphasis.
Today it has several more uses, but it’s important to not overuse it, as this can lead to readability issues, especially when taking into account accessibility.
As an aside, the first letter of italics is pronounced the same as the i in sit – not as eye.
When to use italics
Emphasis or highlighting
Italic font can be used to emphasise or highlight a particular word or words from the surrounding text
In the past it was common practice to use italics for all non-English words at their first mention in the text. Now it is more common to only use italics for non-English words that do not appear in an English dictionary or would be unfamiliar to the target audience. Use italics for the first mention of the word and then Roman font throughout the rest of the text.
It is now also becoming common to not use italics for any non-English words.
If a word has been incorporated into the English language, then there is no need to use italics.
We went to a cafe.
However, if a non-English word has the same spelling but a different meaning as an English word, then italics should be used for the non-English word.
I stayed in a pension in France.
As the Māori language, te reo Māori, is an official language of New Zealand, italics should not be used for Māori words within English text, even if the word may be unfamiliar to the target audience.
Diacritics should be checked in the English dictionary. If the word has been assimilated into English and no longer has the diacritics in the dictionary entry, for example cafe (though the New Zealand Oxford dictionary gives a choice for cafe or café), then no diacritics are needed. However, if the word is not in the English dictionary, then diacritics should be used when the word has them in the non-English language.
If new words are coined or words are used in ways that is not their usual sense, then you can use italics to identify the word at the first mention. Quotation marks can also be used for this purpose.
He was wearing a mask to prevent getting the rona.
Italics are used for genera, species, subspecies and varieties of animals, plants and microorganisms. However, the popular names for plants and animals are not italicised.
Metrosideros excelsa is the scientific name for the pōhutukawa tree.
The abbreviations sp. and spp. are not italicised.
Canis spp. means all species of Canis.
Works of art
Works of art are defined with italics:
He got a copy of the New Zealand Herald.
In the next day’s Herald.
Vehicles and ships
The proper names of ships, boats, trains, aircraft and spacecraft are set in italic. However, the class of vessel or the make and model of vehicles do not take italics.
The HMNZS Te Kaha is currently at sea.
When not to use italics
Punctuation marks surrounding the words in italics should not be in italics.
Have you read Pride and Prejudice? [the question mark is not in italics.]
I watched Masterchef, and then went to bed. [the comma is not in italics.]
The words boss, spooky and cookie originated from Dutch? [the comma is not in italics.]
However, if the punctuation is part of the phrase in italics, then use italics.
I’ve just read the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. [The comma is in italics, but the final full stop is not.]
Quotations within the text are not set off by using italics. However, epigraphs may be in italics if that is the style chosen.
Letters or flashbacks in fiction or call-outs in non-fiction
It’s tempting to put whole sections into italics, such as a letter, flashback or dream in fiction, or call-outs in non-fiction. However, italic font is more difficult to read than Roman font and may distract the reader or cause issues for accessibility. It is better to use other techniques such as setting the text off from the main text with a different size font, with a line space before and after and indents on the left and right.
There are differing opinions on whether a character’s thoughts should be in italics. Today it is becoming more common not to use italics or quotation marks for a character’s thought. For more detail, see my article on How to punctuate dialogue in New Zealand English.
Other times when italic font is not used
I am reading the book Roger Rabbit reads ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
If you have written a book in New Zealand English and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
I would love to hear from you.
Hughes, J., & Wallace, D. (2010). Fit to Print : The Writing & Editing Style Guide for Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Dunmore Publishing.
Oxford University Press, (2016). New Oxford Style Manual (3rd ed.). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Hi, I'm Marja!
You'll find all my advice about creating professional,
New Zealand English Series
The Editing Process