Having edited other people’s work as much as I’ve written my own, there are a few things I notice that continually cause writers (including myself!) to stumble. One of the more consistent is knowing when to use italics, when to use quotation marks, and when to capitalize. A full discussion on this topic would prove much too cumbersome for one blog post, so I’d like to tackle only a few areas where I see confusion regarding which of these formats to use.

1. When writing words or letters as words: This phrase alone is confusing! Words as words or letters as words means when when a word is being defined or when the word or letter is being used as the term itself, such as: “The word presumptuous means ‘taking liberties.'” Or, the letter q is always followed by a u.” In these instances, the word that is being used as the term itself–here “presumptuous” and “q” and “u,” is italicized. When a word is defined, the definition, such as “taking liberties,” is placed in quotation marks.

There are some exceptions–of course!–such as when letters are used in indicate scholastic grades, in which case they will be capitalized and not italicized; and when letters are used as shapes, as in “a T in the road.” Again, these letters will be capitalized and not italicized.

2. Foreign words and terms: When you use a foreign word that your readers will probably not know, the rule is to italicize it. If, however, your phrase becomes more like a sentence (or more) instead of just a few words, skip the italics and put the sentence(s) in quotation marks instead.  If you’re using a foreign word or phrase that is common or familiar, neither italicize or put in quotation marks. How do you know if a foreign word is common? If it appears in the dictionary, then it’s considered common. One other rule with foreign terms is that if the term is not in the dictionary and you use the same term several times, you need only italicize it the first time it’s used.

3. Trademarked or branded names: I’ve seen trademarks and brand names written in quotes and/or italicized in some manuscripts that I’ve edited. Neither is correct. Both are simply written with a capital letter. If you’re unsure if a name is trademarked or what the correct trademark is, you can check the International Trademark Association website to verify. Note, too, that trademarks do not need to have the TM symbol written next to them within a manuscript.

4. Titles of works: Of all the various phrases, words, and terms that could be italicized, put into quotation marks, or capitalized, I think none create more confusion than titles of works. Let’s look at just a few different kinds and how to treat them:

• Books, magazines, and newspapers–These titles are always italicized and written in headline style of capitalization. Book forms include booklets and e-books. With magazines and newspapers, be careful to check what constitutes the actual title. In the Washington Post, the is not part of the title and would not be italicized or capitalized. This rule applies to online forms of the media as well.

• Articles and chapters–A single article that appears in a magazine or newspaper or a chapter from a book is put into quotation marks and set in headline form, but never italicized.

• Plays, movies, and television shows–All of these titles are italicized and set in the headline form of capitalization, but…a single episode in a television show is not italicized but put in quotation marks.

• Musical works–These are very similar to movies and TV, where an album title is italicized, but a single work off of an album is put in quotation marks.

• Websites–Website titles are not italicized or put in quotation marks but are written in headline form.

If you are preparing a manuscript for publication, it’s often helpful if you can ask the publisher for a house style guide so you can be certain how they treat various terms. If this is not possible, a general rule is to follow the Associated Press’s  style guide for magazine articles and the Chicago Manual of Style for writing books.

I hope this cleared up some confusion and did not create more! These are little things that you may not think make much of a difference, but paying attention to such details will give your work a more professional appearance.