Garamond Italic text

Aslant or Askew? Italics in Fiction

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: Β “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.

Image by Maat via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unreported license

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.

Featured image shows Garamond Roman Italic type. Original uploader was Laug at en.wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

66 comments

  1. Audrey, a fascinating and thorough article about italics! It’s interesting how it came about from calligraphy and wow, that is a wonderful description! How true that italics can affect formatting and to keep this in mind. For the reasons you mention I too like to use italics within my work and a great point to be consistent. I read a couple of books last year which made haphazard use of italics and I was left confused to its intent and emphasis!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I read many of my books in e-format now. I have come across italic letters that were clipped off the edge of the page, but I erroneously blamed it on my enlarging the text. After reading this post and your previous italics/formatting post, I think the only safe place for italics words is the first three or four words in a new paragraph!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’ve been needing to buy the Chicago Manual of Style, as I’ve had similar questions about thoughts and the use of italics. (Uh oh. I can’t use italics or underlining in a WP comment.) What’s been holding me back is indecision between the hard copy and the online subscription. I’ll make a decision! If the CMS doesn’t answer the question, I’ll go with your principles, which are my current practice.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe just suggest that they straighten up.

        I used to have a book with the same passage (from Dickens) set in different typefaces in the same point value, and it clearly illustrated not only how much difference a typeface made in both the length of the passage, but in the mood of the passage as well. Typefaces in general might be an interesting topic as well.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. They are really interesting, when you think about the tiny differences between the same letter in different fonts. Tiny, but they add up to totally different visual moods or flavours.
          Looking at that Dickens passage would have been quite an experience!

          Like

  4. I use italics mainly the same way you do. I use them for silent thoughts – you have to indicate somehow that it’s a thought; otherwise it can get confusing – and for emphasis and also for the names of ships. Sometimes I use it for a character’s dream. Way back when I first started to publish, Word messed me up by eliminating all the italics in my master document. I didn’t notice it until I was preparing the PBK, and then I had to go back and re-italicize. I hope I got it fixed correctly – I don’t remember which book it was.
    Another remark on pieces of letters slopping over into the margins: I think the only time I had that problem was with some of the odd characters that I use in my conlangs. I corrcted it by a little rewriting – making sure the odd character didn’t occur at the end of a line.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, I went a little overboard with odd characters, particularly for the termite language. I would do things a little differently today.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Audrey. A very interesting article!. I have a fondness for Italics but think they should be used subtly. Like less is more…Always pleased to read your intelligent, prolific words. Cheers! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting! I use Garamond and have noticed that italics look crowded. It’s a problem. And great tips on how to use italics for internal thought. I think authors need to be really careful with these. People rarely think in huge chunks of full sentences. And I’m popped out of a story when italicized thoughts are used to convey backstory. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the topic!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I was thinking about “thought tags” too. I wonder if they’re necessary. If we’re writing in a tight pov, it should be evident that the thought belongs to the person in whose mind we’re sitting. Something to think about.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the power of internal thoughts because they allow us to contrast what the character may be doing and saying with what they really think. To be effective though, the internals should be short and sharp, imho. Like icing on a cake, don’t want too much of a good thing. πŸ˜€

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes–that contrast is crucial. A character may say or do something and at the same time think the opposite. It’s a great way to create character complexity. But as you say, a little goes a long way.

        Liked by 1 person

            1. -grin- I finally did a search on it: seems to have come from a Greek poet called Hesiod, back in about 700 BC. I’ve also seen references to Aristotle and Plato. πŸ˜‰

              Liked by 1 person

      2. Great point about showing the contrast between thinking and doing. And I agree that short and sharp is key. I think the times when I’m popped out of a story happen because the thought is long and filled with exposition – sort of a “by the way, Bob,” but in thought. πŸ˜€

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m on board with the infrequent use of italics. Like anything, they lose their impact if used too much. I love getting inside a character’s head.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. On the practical problems of using italics in varying formats your post and the replies were most interesting. Some more perils of self-publishing.

    As regards the use of Italics within a narrative. I have noticed over the years the subject seems to raise passions similar to Religion, Sport and Politics. Count me in with the ‘internal dialogue’ approach. The use can be quite fun, as can using punctuation or a sudden change to a fresh paragraph. I liked to use these ploys to illustrate the narrative, though tried to rein them in lest a reader become dizzy with the proliferations changes and ‘signals’.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Quite so Audrey.
        Experiments and tendencies to use ‘this’ and ‘that’ because the writer has an affinity with them are fine for the writer.
        At the end of the day, there is that hard question:
        ‘Are they working for the reader?’
        Something I have been reflecting on in the past couple of months.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Having dealt with fonts and typesetting in the past, it’s unfortunate to learn that some computer-generated italics letters do not honor the full block width/height they require on the page. Imagine a true, lead-letter “f” dropped backwards into a type-block awaiting a Gutenberg pressing — it would HAVE to have taken into account the full width of the “f”‘s descender, right?

    I suppose one of the oddest sensations in using fonts is that many are owned, copyrighted, and you can get into trouble if you use one without permission or without paying the owner.

    Hundreds of fonts? Thousands maybe. And here’s a thought, are there Arabic italics, and do they slant left?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still think physical metal type is amazing. Physicality, for sure.
      There are a lot of free fonts. It’s sort of like images. Both images and fonts require skill to create.
      And yes, there are left-leaning italics, both in Latin script and in Arabic (according to good old Wikipedia).

      Like

  10. I only use italics for emphasis … when I begin a new story, I always set up a style guide for each piece. Most of it is the same across the board, but I relaised with my latest novel that there was so much internal dialogue, I’d have to write the entire damn thing in italics. πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post, Audrey. I agree with most of your rules, but I view unspoken thought as a silent monologue and apply the same rules as for ordinarly dialogue but with a bit ‘extra’ thrown in, so…
    ‘[italics] I better add a tag as well to make sure the reader knows exactly what’s going on, [close italics] she thought.’
    -sigh- I wish you could do italics in comments…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to admit, I used to slip into italics by instinct, but that can lead to excessive use of them and (as I understand it) reader alienation. Not good. So in my work in progress, italicized bits will be scrutinized and adjusted.
      Adding a thought tag may indeed help clarify things. Hmm…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. lol – I use too many italics in the first draft too. I think it’s because we hear the emphasis in our heads – as if we were reading out loud. I’m a demon for first draft exclamation marks too. :/

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.