Italics, quotation marks, underlines, plain old capital letters—when it comes to writing titles, the rules can feel like a confusing mess. Do you italicize book titles? What about movie titles?
And for goodness' sake, what should you do with pesky things like TV shows, short stories, or YouTube videos?
With so many different kinds of media, it's easy to get lost in all the rules. Plus, the rules can vary depending on which style guide you use. The Modern Language Association (MLA) follows a certain set of grammar rules, APA style another, and the Chicago Manual of Style outlines yet another. It's important to determine which style guide you'll use, then follow the rules for that specific style.
The good news is, when it comes to the use of italics, MLA, APA, and Chicago style share many commonalities. Let’s demystify these italics, shall we?
One Rule of Writing Titles
There are two ways we typically indicate titles: by italicizing them, or by putting them in “quotation marks.” We’ll get into the nuances of each in a moment. But let’s start off with one core principle:
Italicize the titles of works that are larger, like the titles of books, albums, and movies. For shorter works, like a journal article title, song title, or a poem title, use quotation marks.
For example, you would italicize the name of the book, like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but you wouldn't italicize the book chapter titles, like “The Worst Birthday” and “Mudbloods and Murmurs.” Chapter titles go in quotation marks.
For some kinds of media, like book titles, the rules are clear. For others, like YouTube videos, they’re a little fuzzier.
Whatever kind of media you're working with, examine it through this principle: italics for large works; quotation marks for small or shorter works.
This principle will help you navigate those areas of uncertainty like a pro.
When Do You Italicize a Title?
Always italicize the titles of larger works such as books, movies, anthologies, newspapers and magazines. Additionally, newer media, such as vlogs and podcasts, may be italicized.
What are other examples of large works? I’m glad you asked.
A large work might be:
- A book, like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
- A movie, like The Dark Knight
- An anthology, like The Norton Anthology of English Literature
- A television show, like Friends
- A magazine, like The New Yorker
- A newspaper, like The New York Times
- An album, like Abbey Road
This principle holds true for newer forms of media, too, like:
- A vlog, like Vlogbrothers
- A podcast, like This American Life
The short answer: Do you italicize book titles? Yes.
When Do You Use Quotation Marks?
What do anthologies, TV shows, magazines, newspapers, vlogs, and podcasts all have in common? They’re all comprised of many smaller parts.
When you’re writing the title of a smaller work, put it in quotation marks. A small work might be:
- A short story, like “The Lottery”
- A poem, like “The Road Not Taken”
- An episode of a TV show, like “The One With the Monkey”
- An article in a magazine or newspaper, like “Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years”
- A song, like “Here Comes the Sun”
- An episode of a vlog, like “Men Running on Tanks and the Truth About Book Editors”
- An episode of a podcast, like “Just What I Wanted”
- A webpage, like “Do You Italicize Book Titles? And Other Title Conundrums”
What About a Series of Books?
It's straightforward enough to capitalize the title of a standalone book, like Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice. But what if you're referencing a book series?
In this case, each individual book title is italicized: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, etc.
The title of the series, though, is not italicized: the Harry Potter series.
What About Punctuation?
Do you italicize commas? Question marks? Exclamation points?
If the punctuation is part of the title, then yes, it too is italicized. For instance, every comma in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is italicized.
If the punctuation is not part of the title, though, be sure to turn off italics before you type it! Here's an example:
“What do you think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”
“I love it! Also, Oklahoma! is one of my favorite musicals.”
Note that in the first example, the question mark is not italicized. In the second, the exclamation point is italicized because it's part of the title of the musical.
Do You Underline Titles? And Other Ways to Indicate Titles
We haven’t always used italics to indicate titles. Before word processing developed italics that were easy to type and easy to read, the titles of larger works were underlined. Since handwriting italics is difficult, underlining the titles of larger works is still an acceptable notation in handwritten documents.
As our communication evolves, so has our ways of indicating titles. If you’re writing a post on Facebook, for instance, there’s no option to italicize or underline. In situations where neither is an option, many people use ALL CAPS to indicate titles of larger works.
Be Clear and Consistent
Here’s the secret: in the end, all these rules are arbitrary anyway, and different style guides have developed their own nuances for what should and shouldn’t be italicized or put in quotation marks. If you're writing something formal, remember to double-check your style guide to make sure you're following their guidelines.
Remember, though, that ultimately, the only purpose for these rules is to help the reader understand what the writer is trying to communicate. Do you italicize book titles? Whatever you’re writing, whether it’s a dissertation or a tweet, be clear and consistent in the way you indicate titles.
If you hold to that rule, no one will be confused.
Are there any kinds of titles you’re not sure how to write? Let us know in the comments.
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Your prompt: two friends are discussing their favorite media—books, podcasts, TV shows, etc. Write their conversation using as many titles as you can (and indicating them correctly!).
Pro tip: to italicize a title in the comments, surround the text with the HTML tags <em></em>.
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Alice Sudlow is the Editor-in-Chief of The Write Practice and a Story Grid certified developmental editor. Her specialty is in crafting transformative character arcs in young adult novels. She also has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, and is known for her eagle-eyed copywriter skills. Get her free guide to how to edit your novel at alicesudlow.com.