Q. Should sounds made by animals or objects be italicized when they aren’t part of dialogue (e.g., “quack,” “choo choo,” etc.)?
A. Though not required, such italics might have their place. Italics are common in fiction for unspoken discourse (as for a narrator’s thoughts). Such italics signal to readers that the words come from somewhere other than the narrative or dialogue. Consider also the convention used by many video captioners of italicizing words spoken off-screen. Meow. (Sorry, our editorial assistant must be hungry again.) If you do end up deciding that italics would work for you, try not to overuse them.
Q. Should the common name of a species from a non-English language be treated as a foreign word and italicized, or should it be left in roman type? I’m thinking of the bird known as a po‘ouli in Hawaii, which is elsewhere called the black-faced honeycreeper. Should po‘ouli be italicized?
A. Though it’s not listed in Merriam-Webster (as of July 5, 2022), the name po‘ouli seems to be relatively well established in recent English-language publications that discuss that bird (sadly reported extinct in 2021); in fact, a Google search for “black-faced honeycreeper” brings up “po‘ouli” first, suggesting it’s more common now than the common English name. So you shouldn’t need italics to refer to a po‘ouli except when using the name as a word (as in the first sentence above and the last sentence in your question).
But if you were to refer to, for example, a Deutscher Schäferhund—the German name for a German shepherd—italics would help signal that the German name would not normally be used in an English-language context (except, for example, to let readers know what that name is).
In sum, sometimes it’s necessary to go beyond the dictionary as a rough gauge of a term’s familiarity in English contexts. For the glottal stop (or ‘okina) in po‘ouli, see CMOS 11.70 (under “Hawaiian”). For advice on capitalizing dog breeds, see this Q&A.
Q. Robots are being named and even developing personalities, not just in fiction, but in the real world. Should their names be italicized—i.e., “I told Benjamin to wait at the coffee shop,” where Benjamin is a robot with artificial intelligence?
A. Italics for robot names could be fun in fiction; however, that doesn’t seem to be the convention either in fiction or in real life. (An exception is generally made for named spacecraft and the like, including the robotic Mars rover Perseverance; see CMOS 8.116.) Before you decide what to do, consider asking some robots to weigh in.
Q. Should the apostrophe in an italicized word in possessive plural form be italicized? Example: If I italicize the possessive form of the word pirates, would the apostrophe also be italicized?
A. That depends. If you’re referring to the plural possessive form of the word pirates as a word, then italicize the whole thing, including the apostrophe: pirates’. But if you’re using italics for emphasis, leave the apostrophe in regular text. For example, “It was the pirates’ ship, not mine, that sank.”
The difference, however, between ’ and ’ will go unnoticed by most readers—even those of us who scrutinize such things for a living—so let’s switch to the singular to confirm our choices. To refer to the possessive pirate’s as a word, you’d put the whole thing in italics (as it is styled in this sentence). But for emphasis—that is, to single out the pirate’s ship as opposed to some other ship—italics are best reserved for pirate alone (as styled in this sentence, between the dashes). Even in the singular, this is an extremely fine distinction that will go unnoticed by many. But it recognizes that the possessive ending can be considered independently of the word to which it attaches, as “belonging to” would be in “the ship belonging to the pirate.” That final period, in case you’re wondering, isn’t in italics.
For italics for emphasis, see CMOS 7.50; for words used as words, see CMOS 7.63.
Q. Hello CMOS! A book I am copyediting contains a text message inside quotation marks (as in, My friend then texted me: “Have you read XYZ?”). The text message in question contains a book title. Would you set the book title in italics, or leave it in roman, as it presumably was in the original text message? Thanks for your help!
A. For the text message to be fully believable, it needs to feel like a text message. So leave the italics out. If you’re afraid of ambiguity, use the narrative to supply the missing context (“She was referring to the book by So-and-So”). But in ordinary fictional dialogue, apply the italics to help your readers; it’s understood that people don’t speak in edited text, so you don’t have to worry about authenticity. For some additional considerations, see “Formatting Text Messages in Fiction” at CMOS Shop Talk.
Q. Should the names of houses be italicized as you would the name of a boat? What about if someone names their car?
A. A house, no. A car, maybe. For example, you wouldn’t use italics to refer to the White House or Graceland or Big Pink (the names of houses located respectively in Washington, DC; Memphis, TN; and West Saugerties, NY). But that last name, unlike the first two, is not all that well known, so quotation marks might be helpful for the first mention:
Several of the album’s songs were composed at “Big Pink,” the house in West Saugerties. . . . Before returning to Big Pink . . .
In general, however, the rule is simple: the names of houses, like other place-names, are capitalized but not italicized.
On the other hand, if you name your Subaru or Ford something other than Forester or F-150 (see CMOS 8.117), you could pretend it’s a boat and use italics à la Enterprise, a name shared by various military vessels and a series of fictional Star Trek spaceships (see CMOS 8.116). But those are official. Your pet name for your car is unlikely to merit such treatment except jokingly:
Cecil, my prized Celica, is in the shop.
Sorry to hear about Cecil. May he feel better soon.
Q. How do you show emphasis (and not with capital letters) in “thought” that’s already in italics?
A. If you must put thoughts in italics (italics are just one option among several), emphasis is usually shown by “reverse italics,” like this:
Does this mean no more waffles, like ever? That’s bad, very bad, I thought.
But you probably wouldn’t have written to us if regular type in an otherwise italic environment worked well as emphasis. Compare the same text but in reverse:
Does this mean no more waffles, like ever? That’s bad, very bad, I thought.
Readers are likely to miss the regular text in the first example (or to notice it but not understand it as emphatic); they are less likely to miss the italics in the second. But if you really want the words to stand out, try bold text or underscore (if your publisher allows it):
. . . That’s bad, very bad, I thought.
. . . That’s bad, very bad, I thought.
Underscore may be the better option. Thanks to the legacy of typewriters (and handwriting), it’s already understood as an alternative to italics. Bold, on the other hand, tends to jump off the page wherever it occurs, which could be either distracting or perfect, depending on the desired effect.
In sum, you have several options, among which is the option to use regular text for thought, reserving italics for emphasis.
Q. Hello! What is the preferred formatting when calling something something else? (Sorry, that was confusing.) For example, in the sentence “People from Minnesota are called Minnesotans,” or the sentence “We call it baseball,” would the words “Minnesotans” and “baseball” need any special formatting, such as italics or quotes? I wasn’t sure if the rule for “words as words” applies in this case, and I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer elsewhere. Thank you!
A. CMOS doesn’t discuss this problem specifically, but thanks to your question we now have a name for it: “calling something something else.” If we had to formulate a rule, we might say that italics or quotation marks are usually unnecessary for words introduced with a form of the verb to call but may be used to highlight the word or phrase as a key term. In CMOS, you’ll mostly see an absence of italics or quotation marks after call: “The front of the leaf, the side that lies to the right in an open book, is called the recto” (CMOS 1.5). Or “The author’s own statement about a work is usually called a preface” (CMOS 1.41).
But starting with the seventeenth edition, we made an exception in chapter 5, where we agreed to italicize the names of grammatical concepts (many of which are unfamiliar even to editors):
Pronouns with antecedents are called anaphoric pronouns. (Anaphora refers to the use of a word or phrase to refer to or replace one used earlier.) (CMOS 5.28)
Sets of word forms by which a language differentiates the functions that a word performs in a sentence are called the word’s cases. (CMOS 5.35)
But here’s an interesting case of a different kind:
We is sometimes used by an individual who is speaking for a group . . . This latter use is called “the editorial we.” (CMOS 5.47)
Outside of chapter 5 we would have written that it’s called the editorial we (as we did in chapter 5 in CMOS 16)—italics for we as a word, but otherwise no special treatment for the phrase as a whole. For the sake of consistency, however, we put the phrase in quotation marks. (Alternatively, we could have written that it’s called the editorial “we”—reversing the roles of italics and quotation marks.)
In sum, consider whether you are focusing on the word or phrase as a word or phrase, or simply offering a description. Then be consistent about it—and watch out for tricky cases.
Q. Should numerals and spelled-out numbers be italicized if they’re being referred to as numbers, as in “The number twelve is significant in the Old Testament”? What about a personal name being referred to as a name?
A. In either case, italics are unnecessary. Write “the number twelve” (or “the number 12”; see CMOS 9.3 for Chicago’s alternative rule for spelling out numbers) and, for example, “the name Ruth.”
Italics (or quotation marks) for words or letters used as such are designed to prevent misreading the word or letter as literally part of the grammatical sentence; no such ambiguity is likely with numbers or names. So, for example, the following sentence could be ambiguous without italics or quotation marks:
The word search was starting to bother me.
On the other hand, special treatment may be necessary for names or numbers in certain cases:
Type “Ruth” into the search box, then hit Enter.
Q. Does the rule in CMOS 7.53 about non-English words hold for names of food and dishes, even if there is no English equivalent? For example, “He made rustici, Italian pastries.” “Her favorite dish is aloo paratha.” “My favorite dish is kacchi biryani.” Should “rustici,” “aloo paratha,” and “kacchi biryani” be in italics?
A. Good question! The purpose of using italics for non-English words in an English-language context is (a) to prevent them from being misunderstood as an unfamiliar English word (or as a typographical error) and (b) to signal a switch from English spelling style to another convention.
But italics aren’t automatically necessary for non-English words in an English context. In the context of your examples it’s obvious that the terms are names of food. The choice can also depend on the frequency of such words (isolated terms are more likely to merit italics) and on the perspective of the narrator or speaker. For example, a non-English term used in dialogue would rarely merit italics, since it can be assumed that it is part of the vocabulary of the person speaking it.