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Richard Nordquist

The Case of the Missing Italics

By August 6, 2008

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In a recent column by Boston Globe journalist Ellen Goodman, this odd-looking sentence caught my eye:

Let's go back to a McCain op-ed that (BEG ITAL)did(END ITAL) run in The New York Times before the invasion.
Funny, but I'd seen this sort of thing before--in a George Will column (from May 2007) that appeared in the online edition of The New York Post:
This city's taxi cartel is offering an audacious new rationalization for corporate welfare, asserting a right -- a (BEG ITAL)constitutional(END ITAL) right, (BEG ITAL)in perpetuity(END ITAL) -- to revenues it would have received if Minneapolis' City Council had not ended the cartel that never should have existed.

Obviously the parenthetical remarks are computer-speak for begin and end italics--a message that in these two cases had been improperly coded, transmitted, or received.

Not an especially newsworthy matter, perhaps, but the question arises: why do newspapers still experience such problems with italics?

An answer, of sorts, can be found in The Associated Press Stylebook, the (American) "journalist's bible":

Italic type face cannot be sent through AP computers.
Turning for amplification to Ask the Editor at APStylebook.com (a favorite Grammar and Usage Advice Site), we find a number of inquiries pertaining to italics--all of them answered patiently by David Minthorn in more or less the same way:
  • Is it correct to italicize car names, for example, would "Prius" in "Toyota Prius" be in italics? from Pasadena, California on Wed, Jul 30, 2008
    Italics aren't used for car names or anything else in AP news stories. Don't be confused by italicized examples in the AP Stylebook.

  • What is the rule for the title of academic journals? Should they be italicized or put in quotation marks? from Little Rock, AR on Wed, Jul 09, 2008
    AP uses straight type for titles of academic and other journals, no quotation marks or italics, principal words capitalized.

  • Us Magazine (entire thing ital) or Us magazine (no ital on magazine)? on Tue, Jun 03, 2008
    Us Weekly . . . AP doesn't use italics in news stories.

  • What is the correct style for the New England Journal of Medicine? Italics or quotation marks? Thanks in advance. from Washington DC on Tue, May 06, 2008
    No quotes or italics for titles of publications, so it's correct as written.

  • Boat/Ship names should be italicized, but in the instance of USS Arizona, would USS also be italicized? on Tue, Apr 22, 2008
    The AP Stylebook would only use USS Arizona in italics as an example, to differentiate from a definition. In AP news stories, italics aren't used because the typeface doesn't transmit through all computers.
We're left to wonder which model of Kaypro computer the AP still relies on.

Most style guides (those without AP in the name) advocate the use of italics for emphasis and with titles of complete works--books, plays, movies, magazines, CDs, television series, and works of art. You'll find additional guidelines at How To Use Italics Effectively, by the About.com Guide to Desktop Publishing, Jacci Howard Bear.

But then, if you subscribe to The AP Stylebook, there's really nothing left to learn about (BEG ITAL)italics(END ITAL).

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February 6, 2009 at 6:13 pm
(1) Sarah says:

Actually, the latest version of the AP Stylebook advocates the use of italics when using ‘words as words’, if the use of italics is available. If not, the guide suggests the use of quotation marks around the word.

January 17, 2013 at 11:34 am
(2) Mike Mabry says:

According to Purdue OWL, TV shows are in quotes.

January 11, 2014 at 6:25 pm
(3) nixxnutz says:

All titles of books, movies, stage productions, and periodicals should be in italics. The same goes for boats and ships, named spacecrafts (Apollo, etc.), trains (20th Century, etc.) and airplanes (Spirit of St. Louis, etc.). Titles of songs, chapters in books, and articles and columns in periodicals should be in quotation marks.

That’s what this old retired editor was taught, and I’m sticking to it.

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