Do You Italicize Book Titles? And Other Title Conundrums

by Alice Sudlow | 41 comments

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?

Do You Italicize Book Titles? And Other Title Conundrums

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.

Need more grammar help? My favorite tool that helps find grammar problems and even generates reports to help improve my writing is ProWritingAid. Works with Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and web browsers. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 20 percent off: WritePractice20

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PRACTICE

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>.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, share your practice in the Pro Workshop here, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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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.

41 Comments

  1. RAW

    In the movie, “Gone with the Wind”, Rhett Butler said, “Frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn!”

    (Note: I was unable to use italics in this comment section…. Oh well!)

    R. Allan Worrell

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      You’re running into that same problem that’s prompted the use of all caps on Facebook, and that used to standardize underlining titles: when technology makes it difficult to use the notation you want! That’s a fantastic quote nonetheless.

    • RAW

      Alice –

      Oh God! The problem with tech! Can you just imagine having a last name with 25 or 30 characters? Many Indian names (from India) are that large, and I would imagine some hyphenated names come close.

      “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate!” ha, ha, ha!

      That line was printed on IBM punch cards… way before your time! I never did learn what the word “spindle” meant! ha, ha.

      Do you know of any other tech “gotcha’s”???? I think this is a fun subject!

      Cheers Alice!

      R. Allan Worrell
      Author: Father John’s Gift

  2. Molly

    Though it seems content is really more important that the rules of conventions, I am glad to see others are as concerned about accuracy as I am. That said, take note that “Gone With the Wind” should be “Gone with the Wind.” Articles, prepositions, and conjunctions are not capitalized in titles.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this! I love thinking through all the nuances of tricky grammar rules and style guidelines, and I’m glad I’m not the only one.

      You’re right about Gone with the Wind—according to Chicago style, prepositions aren’t capitalized. In general, though, on The Write Practice we lean towards AP style for title capitalization. That means capitalizing words with four or more letters, regardless of their part of speech. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. nancy

    Most of this is what I thought. We used to underline; now we italicize.

    However, what do you do when you’re talking about a newspaper as a company: I got a job at The Washington Post.
    Also, What about sayings: My mother always used to say, all’s well that ends well. My mother is not saying this now, so I can’t use quotes. Would I italicize?

    Reply
    • PJ Reece

      We have the option of adding “that”: My mother used to say that all’s well that ends well.

    • Wordwizard

      Your mother used to say “All’s well that ends well.” with quotation marks being appropriate whether or not she’s alive. We still quote Mark Twain with quotation marks, and his death is no longer exaggerated.

    • nancy

      Thank you, Wordwizard.

    • Karon

      I wouldn’t italicize a company name, but I don’t know if there is generally a rule that dictates that.

    • nancy

      I think there is a difference between Macy’s and The Washington Post. One is a publication; the other is not. And therein lies my question.

    • Davidh Digman

      In Australian English at least, the main issue is context. If you mean The Washington Post as a company, then you use roman. If you mean The Washington Post as a publication, then you italicise.

    • Karon

      That’s how I would do it too.

    • Alice Sudlow

      You’ve gotten some great answers below; I’ll just jump in to offer my confirmation.

      In Chicago style, the company The Washington Post is not italicized: “She works for The Washington Post.” The publication is italicized: “I read an article in The Washington Post.”

      As for the saying, you would put it in quotes. For instance: “All’s well that ends well,” as my mother used to say. You’re still quoting your mother, even if it’s not something she’s saying right now, so you would use quotation marks.

  4. Wordwizard

    Books get treated one way, and short stories another, but where do novellas and novelettes fall? What if you are unsure which of the four slippery categories something falls within? A children’s picture book is the length of a short story—

    Reply
    • Davidh Digman

      Because a children’s picture book is a complete book, and because it is usually bound as a book, you do need to italicise its title. Remember also that the pictures are an inherent part of a children’s picture book, so if each picture adds a thousand words…

      Under the standards for Australian English, the main consideration for formatting titles is whether the story is bound on its own or as part of a greater work.

      So if your novella or novellette is published on its own, then the title should be formatted as a novel. If published as a part of a collection or anthology, it should be titled like a short story.

      The categories as defined by the Hugo Awards categories (which I follow as I write speculative fiction) are below. I have sourced these from the Hugos website:

      Novel: A story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more.
      Novella: A story of between seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) and forty thousand (40,000) words.
      Novelette: A story of between seven thousand five hundred (7,500) and seventeen thousand five hundred (17,500) words.
      Short Story: A story of less than seven thousand five hundred (7,500) words.

    • Wordwizard

      Thank you, David. However, I need to know American conventions (British would be good, too.). Also, sometimes the same work is published both as a children’s book, and as a story in a larger work. What then?

    • Davidh Digman

      I cannot actually tell you those conventions, but I do know that US English uses The Chicago Manual of Style which has an online portal.

      British English uses The Oxford Manual of Style.

      For works that have been published both alone and also as part of a greater work, I would recommend either using the style that relates to how you are citing the work. Alternatively, I would say you are free to choose whichever best suits your current need.

    • Alice Sudlow

      Davidh’s given some great answers, so there’s not a lot I can add.

      Not sure about Chicago style, but MLA style (Modern Language Association style, used for research in literature and the humanities) would have you italicize the names of novellas and novelettes that have been published separately. For instance, Heart of Darkness is a novella, but because it’s been published as its own work, you would italicize the title.

      If they have been published as works within a collection or anthology, you would indicate the title with quotation marks, as you would with a short story or poem.

      Children’s books may be short, but they’re definitely books, their own complete works. Those titles are italicized.

      If a novella or novelette has been published both independently and in a collection, I would err towards italicizing the title. Some anthologies, like The Norton Anthology of English Literature, include works of all lengths, even entire novels and plays. So if a novella has been published separately, I would italicize it, even if it appears elsewhere in a collection.

      Obviously, some of these guidelines get dicier as I go along. I’d recommend checking out a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or searching the manual online (you’ll need a subscription, though). Also, as you write, you can establish your own style to handle these nitty-gritty nuances. As all these style manuals indicate, the intricacies of indicating titles are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.

      Hope that helps!

  5. Karon

    I only just finished editing several stories of a friend of mine, and I spent a lot of time struggling with italics. If it’s a name of a ship, do you italicize it? What about a government Act? e.g. Would you use italics the way I do in this sentence? “The government passed The Underwater Basket Weaving Act?

    Reply
    • Davidh Digman

      Under Australian English at least, ship’s abbreviations are NOT italicised, but ship’s names are. So in HMAS Condamine, HMAS (“Her Majesty’s Australian Ship”) should be in roman, and Condamine should be in italics.

    • Karon

      Very useful. Thanks again.

    • Davidh Digman

      Again, in Australian English, the rules for Acts and Ordinances of Parliament are a little less simple than many other things.

      Our Acts and Ordinances have short formal titles that are approved within the legislation.

      The first time you refer to the Act or Ordinance within a work, you need to use the full title (exactly as defined within the Act, including the year, any articles, prepositions, etc.) in italics. Subsequent references need to be in roman text and may (as in optionally) omit the year.

      You do not use quotation marks.

      So the first time you mention it, it should be in italics: Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (sorry, I’m unsure how to put in italics here).

      Subsequent mentions within the same work should be in roman text but can omit the year: Acts Interpretation Act.

      I am not sure whether these standards apply outside of Australia, but they may be a good starting point for research into the proper form for your local English.

      By the way, the Acts Interpretation Act is a real Act under Australian Law. It defines the rules on how to interpret other Acts of the Australian Parliament. I once wrote a short humour piece about it for a newspaper here.

    • Karon

      That sounds reasonable. Thank you!

    • Davidh Digman

      You are welcome! I enjoy this sort of thing!

    • Alice Sudlow

      Those are great questions, Karon—and those are the kinds of nitty-gritty things that make style rules like this complicated. Davidh’s given you great answers.

      As he says, ships’ abbreviations aren’t italicized; their names are: USS Enterprise.

      As far as I can tell, Chicago style would have you italicize the name of an act. The “the” isn’t part of the name, though, so it would look like this: the Underwater Basket Weaving Act.

      This guide doesn’t cover every instance (like the two you brought up), and it’s a little out of date, but I still find it a helpful place to start when I’m wondering what italicize.

    • Karon

      Thank you! I’m going to save your article and the one at the link.

  6. Andressa Andrade

    Hi, Alice! This is a great post! I have always had doubts about that. I think I used to use quotation marks (for everything) in the past, but lately, I have been using italics (again, for everything). I don’t remember why I changed. But your rule is very simple and makes sense to me, so I think I am adopting it from now on. Thank you very much!

    I have another doubt about titles: do you capitalize every word in a title? Or just the first word? Maybe every word, except for prepositions and conjunctions? I’d love to read a post about that!

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Hi, Andressa! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      That’s a great question about titles, and there are a lot of different answers—different style guides say different things. Here’s a quick summary:

      – Always capitalize the first word in a title.
      – Always capitalize the last word.
      – Capitalize all the important words.

      That last point is where things get dicey. Chicago style does NOT capitalize articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. AP style DOES capitalize all words of four letters or longer.

      I sometimes cheat and use an online title capitalization tool like this one to capitalize titles for me.

      You’re right—there’s more than enough material for a post here. I’m taking note! 🙂

    • Andressa Andrade

      Hi! Thank you very much for replying! I’m taking notes here. Thank you for the helpful link, too! I’ll keep an eye out for a post on the topic. 😉

  7. Davidh Digman

    Thank you for this handy reminder.

    The standards you describe appear identical to those used in Australian English.

    Most national Englishes have their own standards, so it is important to know which authority is accepted for your own version of English.

    So for Australian English, the official standard is the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers published by Wylie. I understand that the Sixth Edition (published 2002) is still current.

    The Style Manual is accepted by the Australian Government and various authorities to be the official standard for Australian English. It is a dry, but to me, nonetheless fascinating resource. I keep a copy on or next to my desk at all times.

    Reply
    • Karon

      This is very interesting. I’m not British, but we use British English in my country. I wonder if there is a style manual I can access.

    • Davidh Digman

      I understand British English uses The Oxford Manual of Style. You may want to Google local retailers.

    • Alice Sudlow

      That’s so true—it’s important to follow the style guide for your type of writing. In the United States, we use several different style guides depending on the discipline and purpose of writing. AP style is used in journalism, for example, and Chicago style is used by book writers. Even between styles, there can be dramatic differences; check out this comparison of AP and Chicago style. (It’s a little out of date, but but still helpful.)

      For this post, I’ve focused mainly on Chicago style guidelines for indicating titles. But of course, for any kind of formal writing, you’ll want to double-check the style guide that’s relevant to you.

  8. Elizabeth Westra

    Can titles of long or large works like books be in bold instead of italics? I often use italics to indicate thoughts. Is this the right way?

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      You’re not alone in using italics to indicate thoughts; that’s a very common way of writing them. When you write the title of a book within those thoughts, it’s actually not italicized for contrast:

      I’ve never read Gone With the Wind, but maybe I should, she thought.

      If you’re writing something less formal, like a post on your own blog or a letter to a friend, you could choose to use bold instead of italics. Just remember to be consistent within that work so that your readers understand that’s what you’re doing, since it’s not how we’re used to seeing titles.

    • Elizabeth Westra

      I was taught to put titles of major books in bold, but has that changed to italics now?

  9. TerriblyTerrific

    I usually use quotation marks. It makes it easier. Thank you. This was really helpful!!

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      You’re welcome! I’m glad it’s been helpful.

  10. Marilynn Byerly

    I tend to type book titles in caps when I’m writing for emails, email lists, and various forms of promotion because a huge amount of time, the italics disappear. Sure, it’s wrong, but it beats having the book title disappear in a sea of text.

    Reply
  11. Alejandro Lamothe Cervera

    Thanks for sharing, my mother language, as you probably already noticed is not English, I published my first novel (in Spanish) and now I want to publish it in English, one of the first things I have to decide is if I use Italics, Capitalize all or it or what :-(.
    The title is “TAU 6 AND THE INVASION” it is a 300 pages science fiction novel.
    Can you make any recommendations?
    Best regads

    Reply

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