Recently I described some problems I had with italic characters in one of my books. And no, I don’t mean people from Italy; I’m talking about text in what is called italic type.
As the Wikipedia entry explains, italic type has been around for quite a while. It arose in imitation of calligraphic handwriting, hence its rightward slant. Italics have a certain ornamental quality, and are often used where elegance is required, as in wedding invitations.
Here is a great description from Wikipedia, of a specific type of italics: “a more deliberate and formal handwriting [with] longer ascenders and descenders, sometimes with curved or bulbous terminals…” Love that typographical jargon!
Those longer ascenders and descenders are most evident in the letter “f,” which was the one that recently gave me grief when I was correcting a few errors in one of my books.
That’s one problematic aspect of italics: space. Although italic text is overall more compact than regular text, certain italic letters need more space than their upright counterparts. The aforementioned “f” in particular. In the illustration above, you can see that both the curly descender and ascender project farther beyond the vertical axis of the italicized letter than the ordinary one. And look at that “z” in the featured image at the top of the post! Apparently italic Garamond is notorious for triggering warnings of insufficient gutter. I can say from experience that’s true of italic Palatino as well.
Garamond and Palatino are serif fonts. Those who use sans-serifs may not have to worry about this issue, since their version of italic forms is oblique type. This post is in a sans-serif font, so this letter “f,” although slanted, lacks the curly bits. I don’t like sans-serif fonts for novels, though.
Just the superficial research I’ve done for writing this post and selecting fonts for my books has reminded me of how interesting typography can be. Designing whole alphabets for function and beauty is an art, one that involves subtlety and attention to fine details. There are hundreds of typefaces. Wikipedia lists many of them, some with intriguing names, such as Skeleton Antique, Inconsolata, Roboto, and Ionic No. 5.
Italics are conventionally used to signal emphasis or distinction, such as words given extra stress, book and movie titles, ships’ names, and foreign words and phrases.
So what about using italics in fiction? Some writers say they are distracting and should be avoided. Others make exceptions for the conventional usages.
To the list of those usages some would add unspoken thoughts.
Ah yes, unspoken thoughts… My recent issue with italics wasn’t the first one I’ve blogged about. Since most of my writing is in first person, I am rather attached to italics for the narrator’s unvoiced thoughts. Several years ago, a discussion in my critique group provoked this blog post. It seems this use of italics is a hot topic among writers. Here is another discussion (see the comments!)
Despite all that, I think italics are a useful tool for conveying nuance in fiction. Words emphasized in dialogue and thoughts a narrator shares with the reader alone can be powerful. After circling the fabled mulberry bush a few times, I have decided on my own set of Principles of Italic Usage in Fiction.
- Use italics in moderation and with clear intention.
- Specific situations: emphasis, titles of works, foreign words, unspoken thoughts. The foreign words must be ones that haven’t been absorbed into everyday English. No italics for “en route” or “zeitgeist.” (And no capital “z” on that one, either.)
- Italicize unspoken thoughts in first person narration. But keep them brief and few. And if there’s a thought tag, no italics. If italics, no thought tag. As in: I’ll live to regret this, I thought. Or: I’ll live to regret this.
- No more than three consecutive sentences in italics. Preferably short sentences.
- Be consistent. Use italics for the same things and in the same way throughout the work.
So writers and self-publishers: you may wish to cast a critical eye on italicized text in your works in progress and reduce it to a bare minimum. And when you’re formatting the print version of a book, watch out for italic “f’s” in the gutter.