Titles: Underline, Italics, or Quotations?
(printable version here)
When writing about other works, it's hard to decide when to underline (or place in italics) a title and when to place it in double quotations. Note that some publications have a "house style" that must be followed. When in doubt, however, these guidelines from the Modern Language Association may help:
For titles of written or musical works that are published within other works use double quotations; underline or italicize names of works published by themselves:
ex. I just read the short story "Looking for Jake" in China Miéville's anthology of the same name, Looking for Jake.
ex. Beckett's play Waiting for Godot will be performed next season.
ex. Devo's second album, Duty Now for the Future, has one of my favorite songs, "Swelling Itching Brain."
ex. Yes, I went to a science-fiction convention. I really enjoy the original Star Trek TV series, especially the episode "Return of the Archons," and the first three Star Wars films, especially The Empire Strikes Back, okay?
ex. I read the story "All about the Bronx" in the city section of today's New York Times.
ex. I have subscribed to my favorite magazine, The Atlantic, for many years.
For names of artwork, always use italics or underlining:
ex. We have a copy of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks in the Writing Center lobby. I always think about it when I'm listening to Tom Wait's CD Nighthawks at the Diner.
For the names of famous aircraft, ships, and spacecraft, always use italics or underlining:
ex. I built scale models of the USS Nimitz and the space shuttle Discovery last year.
ex. The Bible, Book of Exodus, or Qu'ran do not get underlined in the text of a paper. A specific edition would, however, be underlined in a works-cited list. Their titles are capitalized.
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It can be confusing to know which titles get italicized and which get quotation marks when citing them in your writing. An easy rule to remember is that short titles and sections of work, such as a chapter title in a book or an episode in a TV show, get quotation marks while larger titles or works, such as a book title or an album, are italicized. However, which one you use may depend on the style and format of writing you are following.
Why Use Italics and Quotation Marks in Titles?
Italics and quotation marks are generally used to set a composition title apart from the text surrounding it. For example, if you were writing the sentence "I read The Cat in the Hat," it wouldn't necessarily be clear what the title was, or even that there was a title at all.
So, italics and quotation marks make the title stand out. A sentence such as "I read The Cat in the Hat" or "I read "The Cat in the Hat" today" is a lot clearer.
Should you set off a title with italics or should you set it off with quotation marks? Well, there are rules for that.
Rules for Using Italics and Quotation Marks in Titles
There are several different writing style guides: The Modern Language Association (MLA) is the style generally used in arts and humanities papers; the American Psychological Association (APA) is used for social sciences; the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) is commonly used in magazines, newspapers and the internet; and the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), one of the most well-known formats, is followed in a wide variety of disciplines from publishing to science.
Each of the style guides have their own rules when it comes to formatting titles. AP style is one of the simpler styles to remember, as it does not use italics in composition titles at all.
All formats except AP recommend the following titles should be in italics:
- Ballets, Operas, Symphonies
- Comic strips
- Exhibitions at a museum
- Aircraft and spacecraft
All formats except APA recommend that the following titles should be in quotation marks:
- Book chapters
- Names of video games
- Single episodes of TV and radio shows
- Unpublished writing such as manuscripts or lectures
- Album tracks or singles
- Podcast episodes
- Short stories and poems
APA differs from other formats in that it does not use either quotation marks or italics for titles of shorter works, such as essays that are in collections, lectures or journal articles. These shorter works are formatted in regular type.
MLA and Chicago, while agreeing on most citation styles, diverge on some points. In MLA the titles of online databases should be italicized; Chicago style says to set those in regular type. MLA says that all websites should be italicized while Chicago style says they should be in regular type.
When Not to Use Italics or Quotation Marks
There are certain titles of things that should not be in italics or quotation marks. The following titles should always be set in regular type:
- Scriptures of major religions
- Constitutional documents
- Legal documents
- Traditional games (such as football, hopscotch or blackjack)
- Commercial products (such as Cocoa Puffs)
- Political documents
- Names of artifacts
- Names of buildings
Print and Online Style Differences
Italicizing is easy to do on the computer, but not practical when you are hand writing something. In such cases, underlining is still used and is the same as writing a title in italics.
When formatting titles for the web, be aware that you should go with whatever style is most visually appealing. Online formats tend to be less formal in style compared to print materials. Styling for the web is about attracting visitors to the site so make the title stand out without looking clunky in order to get more attention.
Determine What to Use
By practicing the above rules for using italics and quotation marks you will find that it will become easier to determine what you should use. If you are uncertain about what to use, ask yourself if the title of a work appears inside a larger body of work or if it can stand alone. If the title belongs inside a larger body of work, use quotation marks. If the title is for a body of work that stands alone, it should be in italics. And remember that consistency is key, whichever style you choose.
To learn about which words should be capitalized in a title read YourDictionary's article on Rules for Capitalization in Titles.