Italics and Quotes for Titles: A Guide
We’ve all been there. We’re writing along, solidly in the groove, when the Formatting Wall appears around a seemingly safe corner. Abruptly halting, you wonder: How the heck am I supposed to format this title?
Titles come in many shapes and sizes, but they all have rules for formatting that you master with just a little work. Italics, quotes, even plain text: they all apply in certain situations. How do you know which is which?
Use italics to set apart the title of a standalone work or a “container work”—that is, a work that has other, smaller works within it. Examples of titles that should be italicized include:
- Academic journals
- Music albums
- Large musical compositions such as symphonies and operas
- TV series
- Anthologies of poems
- Art exhibitions
My brother insists that Fists of Fury is the best movie ever made.
Have you read the latest issue of Scottish Archaeology Journal? It’s riveting!
I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I think La Boheme, by Giacomo Puccini, is an overrated opera.
I can’t believe the TV show Supernatural is in its fourteenth season.
Use quotation marks to set apart the title of a subsidiary work or a work that is part of a bigger piece (one where the title of that bigger piece would be italicized). Examples of when to use quotes include:
- Book chapters
- Articles (published in a journal)
- Short stories
- Song titles
- TV episodes
- Works of art (including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and performance art)
Why do I have to read Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” in every English class?
I can’t get the tune to “Amazing Grace” out of my head.
Every time I think of William Carlos Williams, I get irritated. “This Is Just to Say” is a beautiful poem, but it reminds me of my terrible roommate.
And so you can easily demonstrate which is the work “inside” the other work with proper punctuation:
My favorite episode of Doctor Who is “Blink,” without a doubt.
I love everything by the Beatles, but I think “I Should Have Known Better” from A Hard Day’s Night is an underrated classic.
Modern Construction Envelopes is a very useful reference in general, but chapter 12, “Fabric Roofs,” is groundbreaking.
The highlight of the recent exhibition, Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity, had to be Steinlen’s “Cabaret du Chat Noir.” It was fascinating to see in person what I’ve seen on a wall in every undergraduate dorm across the country.
There are, of course, exceptions. A few types of publications and creative works stand a little apart from the general categories of “standalone/wrapper work” and “subsidiary work.”
For example, dissertations are typically standalone documents, but their titles go in quotation marks.
The best dissertation ever written is “The False Optic: Poisoned Fictional Objects in Renaissance Revenge Tragedies.”
If a musical composition has both a formal name and a popular name, the formal name goes in italics, as usual, but the popular name goes in quotes after that. So you’d write:
I’m always moved to tears by Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World."
How to Remember
A relatively easy way to remember these rules involves whether a work is “big” or “little.” If it’s a grand, sweeping thing that might contain other bits within it, like a book or journal, then use italics. If it’s a smaller thing that might itself be contained within something else, like a newspaper article or work of art in an exhibition, then it goes in quotes.
Oh, and don’t forget to capitalize those titles correctly, in addition to formatting them right.
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