Any regular reader of my columns will have noticed they’re full of italics, and any newcomer may wonder why. Here’s why.
But first, what are italics? They began as a sloping typeface invented in Renaissance Italy, and, in the best versions, of astonishing beauty: I remember to this day a glorious 1600-ish Latin volume (though not, alas, its author’s name —age takes its toll) in the library of New College, Oxford, entirely set in italics.
In English typography, italics soon came to be used mainly to call attention to particular words. What a letter-writer or author would underline, the typesetter would italicize; as a proof-reader, in these dying days of print-and-paper, will underline some words wrongly set in roman type and write ital/ at the side, to show they should be in italics.
That “attention-calling” became the basic use of italics. The Victorians loved it, witness their letters. Modern editors and publishers, and hence authors, are against it. So it is rarely seen.Yet even now italics can be useful to show that some speaker firmly stressed a given word.
No right or wrong
There are other, distinct uses. In an English text, it is normal to italicize a word or phrase in some foreign language, or one half-adopted into English, but not wholly. Thus I would keyboard status quo, a Latin phrase that has become English, in roman type; but fait accompli in italics, since that French phrase doesn’t seem quite English yet.
Of course, what “seems English” differs from person to person, and so from one publisher’s style-book to another’s. And from country to country: writing for India, I’d put “the Haridwar mela” in roman; for a British paper I’d italicize mela. But there’s no clear right and wrong in these matters. Two weeks ago, I wrote here of the “Olympic tamasha”. The sub-editors at The Telegraph — entirely correctly, since the style-book is its, not mine — made that tamasha, in italics. As indeed my laptop screen had told me to, but I refused.
Most publishers put newspaper or magazine titles in italics. Some do so for the titles of ships, or books, or maybe poems; others use single or double quotation marks. There’s no right or wrong here either.
Then there’s a specialized use. Writing about language, one italicizes words to show that it is the word as such, not what it means, that one is on about. I briefly thought I’d invented this usage when I began writing on English for The Economist in the 1990s. Not at all. You’ll find it in the century-old works of H.W. Fowler, as in many others on language or grammar.
This usage saves labour and quote marks: it’s faster and neater to write claptrap than “the word ‘claptrap’”. My trouble is that, at times, I also want to emphasize certain words, and do so with italics. Thus in February, noting how full English is of nautical metaphor, I wrote: “Skippers these days often head sporting teams, anchormen prattle on television, shysters act close to the wind.” In all those cases, I had in mind the word’s (original) meaning — skipper, the chap in charge of a boat — not the word as such.
Result, maybe, confusion (not confusion — you get that by writing c-o-n- etc). I hope not, and trust I don’t add to it by noting that, in whatever usage, if you want to italicize a phrase that already contains a few words in italic, you must switch those few into roman. For example, that phrase, the subeditors at The Telegraph, etc... Flattery? Nah, fact, in any typeface.