Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 88: Heavyweight Title

This week, we wrestle a common style question to the ground: When it comes to writing out titles for books, movies, songs and so on, how should writers represent titles? Is it by using italics or quotation marks, or by underlining the title?

As is so often the case with questions of grammar, the answer is: it depends. But before jumping into the exceptions, we'll discuss the hard and fast rules. Grammatically speaking, there is general agreement on at least two points. One is that italics and underlining are interchangeable. As Susan Thurman and Larry Shea write in their book, The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need:
"What's the difference in meaning between underlining and italics? There isn't any... But sometimes (when you're writing longhand or when you're using a typewriter), the option to italicize is not available. Just remember to use either underlining or italicizing consistently throughout your document."

The other rule that seems to enjoy widespread agreement is that underlining and italicizing are to be used for larger works or works that are self contained while quotation marks should be used for shorter works. For example: the title of the Beatles' album, Help! would be underlined or in italics while the title of the song, "Yesterday" would be in quotation marks. Similarly, the title of the article "5 Held in Plot to Bug Office" would be in quotation marks while the title of the newspaper in which it appeared, The Washington Post, would be italicized or underlined.

Generally speaking, titles for books, magazines, newspapers, movies, plays, operas and records get italicized or underlined. Songs, poems, articles, essays, short stories, paintings and sculptures are put in quotation marks.

Episodic television shows like CSI: Miami are italicized. Individual episode titles are put in quotation marks. Also, the names of spacecraft and sea-going ships are italicized.

Grammatically speaking these practices are generally accepted. That is to say, they're not wrong. Underlining and italicizing are interchangeable and are for larger works. Quotation marks are for smaller works.

Unfortunately, there are as many interpretations as there are style guides. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style requires writers to italicize book titles in their bibliographies while the Modern Language Association requires book titles to be underlined. Meanwhile, the New York Times style guide calls for all titles to be in quotation marks. Each one has its own interpretation of the rules.

There is at least one unique example that deserves specific mention. Most style guides agree that sacred works like the Bible or the Koran should be written without any additional punctuation. No underlining, italicizing or quotation marks.

Once again, consistency is the key. And when in doubt, it's best to verify the rules as they are described in the style guide for where you work or study.

Sources: The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need by Susan Thurman and Larry Shea; The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition; MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd Edition; The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything by Amy Bernstein and Peter Bernstein.

Music from this episode: "Muhammad Ali" by Sir Mack Rice and "Underdog" by The Dirtbombs.

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