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Formatting Titles: Italics, Underline, Quotation Marks – Oh My!

In academic writing, authors occasionally need to refer to previously published works. However, given the myriad of formatting techniques used to highlight the titles of these works, such as italics, underlining, and quotation marks, new authors can easily become confused with the proper way to format these titles. Thankfully, the rules are not terribly difficult, and one quick question to yourself can help you sort out the proper formatting quickly.

The titles of stand-alone published works (e.g., books, journals, newspapers, albums, or movies) should be italicized. Simply ask yourself if the work appears as an independent, stand-alone volume. If the answer is yes, then the title should be italicized. For example, a newspaper title should be italicized (e.g., The Washington Post). Also, the title of a book should be italicized (e.g., Little Women by Louisa May Alcott).

At this point, I should mention underlining. Historically, underlining was used almost interchangeably with italics for the titles of these stand-alone works. This was once considered an acceptable treatment of titles because the average person did not have access to the typesets that were required to produce italicized words. This is especially true of handwritten documents. However, with the advent of word processors, personal computers, and printers, most people can now easily produce italicized text. Thus, underlining has fallen out of favor with exception to handwritten text.

The titles of portions of a larger text or work (e.g., a chapter in a book, an article in a journal or newspaper, an individual song on an album, or a scene in a movie) should appear enclosed in quotation marks. Simply ask yourself if the work appears as part of a larger work. If the answer is yes, then enclose the title in quotation marks. For example, the article entitled “FBI Agents Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats” as published in The Washington Post or the chapter “Playing Pilgrims” in Little Women should be handled in this way.

This little question will help you effectively format titles in most situations. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention the few unusual situations. For example, works of art (e.g., the name of a painting) should always be italicized. The specific names of ships, planes, and space crafts should be italicized, but the abbreviations before the names, designations of classes, and the makes are not italicized (e.g., The Queen Mary, USS Indianapolis, Boeing 747, and The Space Shuttle Challenger). The names of trains are not italicized. Also, the general names of standard religious texts use no special formatting beyond capitalization (e.g., the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran).