Italics or What

I had an email discussion with a friend that happens to be an experienced editor and author regarding when italics should be used to indicate a special type of dialogue. Her issue had to do with a telepathic conversation between two characters.

The issue brought to mind books I’ve read where italics were overused (in my opinion) to indicate internal dialogue, called unspoken discourse in the Chicago Manual of Style. But, I’ve also seen it overused for communication over radios, and for messages shared with a reader. By messages, I mean things like e-mails and letters that are presented to the reader as if they were reading the original.

I happen to have temporary (but legal) access to the online version of the Chicago Manual of Style. So, I looked up its advice on the issue. I’m paraphrasing here, but in paragraph 13.41 CMS states that internal dialogue can be double quoted or not quoted at all depending on context or the writer’s preference. Italics aren’t mentioned in the paragraph.

I searched the CMS index for italics and found the typical recommendations to use them for emphasis, titles and foreign words, but nothing about using them to distinguish long sections of prose from normal prose. In fact, paragraph 7.47 advises to use italics sparingly and rarely in a sentence length and never in a long passage.

In the Q&A section CMS gave the following answer to a question regarding the format of text messages in a manuscript:

“A. Unless a designer wants to create a special typography for text messages (as is sometimes done in books for children and young adults), just use quotation marks. It’s never been considered necessary to have a separate style for phone conversations, e-mails, or other types of communication, and texts are nothing new in this regard. The context should make it clear: “how r u,” he texted; “ha ha Daddy I can’t believe you use ‘r u,’” she replied.”


My conclusion is that italics should be used only for emphasis and then sparingly. Of course my conclusion supports my dislike for long passages of italics. I find them distracting.

I’d love to hear your opinions.


Author: David P. Cantrell

I'm a retired baby-boomer enjoying life.

One thought on “Italics or What”

  1. My experience has been that in practice italics are universally used to express direct thoughts. This helps us to distinguish what is said aloud from what is essentially a thought inside a character’s head. So in that sense they are very necessary. Otherwise direct thoughts look strange and blur the lines too much between narration and internal dialogue. Blurring the lines works just fine for books written in first person, but for third person not so much.

    I’ve also seen (and used) italics to mark long sections of text that are e-mails or text-based conversations. I think the rules for what’s acceptable in that regard come down to stylistic choice more than anything, but the best solution for e-mails/letters is probably to set them off from the rest of the text with a blank line and let context do the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

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