When to Use Italics for Non-English Words

When to Use Italics for Non-English Words

  • Feb 11, 2021
  • 10 min read

In English-language writing, words from other languages are often presented in italics. As a proofreader, you may therefore need to check that such words are presented correctly. But what are the rules about italicizing foreign words in English writing?

In this post, we look at what a proofreader needs to know on this subject.

When to Use Italics for Non-English Words

In broad terms, unfamiliar foreign words or phrases should be italicized in English writing. This is common when referring to technical terms used by non-English writers. For instance:

Heidegger’s concept of Dasein is fundamental to his philosophy.

Here, the German word “Dasein” could have been translated to English as “being.” But the author has preserved the original term because it has a technical use in Heidegger’s work. And to show that this term is borrowed from another language, it is written in italics.

By comparison, there is no need to italicize foreign words or phrases that have an established use in English. For example, most English speakers are familiar with the term “déjà vu” and the experience it describes. Thus, even though this is a French term, it would not need to be italicized. Likewise, common Latin abbreviations such as “e.g.” or “etc.” are not usually italicized.

In general, then, when deciding whether a term should be italicized, the two key factors are:

  1. Does it have an entry in an authoritative English-language dictionary (e.g., the OED for British English or Merriam-Webster for American English)? If so, it has an established used in English and does not need to be italicized when used in English writing.
  2. Will your client’s audience be familiar with the term? If not, it may be best to italicize it even if it has an established use, as it may still be new to the target reader(s).

Beyond this, the most important thing is making sure that your client uses a consistent approach to italicizing non-English words in their work.

However, if your client is using a style guide, you should check it for advice. We will look at what some of the major style guides say about italicizing non-English words below.

Style Guides on Italicizing Foreign Words

Most major style guides offer advice on when to italicize foreign words. These include:

  • AMA Style – In AMA style, writers should italicize words and phrases from other languages that do not have a standard use in English, as well as giving a definition if required for clarity. However, this is not necessary for non-English street, building, or organization names.
  • APA Style – Requires italics for non-English words, phrases, and abbreviations if they may be unfamiliar to readers, but only on the first use. If the same word, phrase, or abbreviation is used later in the same document, it should be written without italics.
  • Chicago Style – Italicizes isolated words and phrases from non-English languages unless they are proper nouns or they appear in a standard dictionary for the relevant dialect. If a non-English word is used frequently, only the first instance needs to be italicized.
  • MHRA Style – Words and short phrases from other languages, except direct quotations, should be italicized if they do not have a standard usage in English. If in doubt over whether a word has a use in English, MHRA style suggests using roman type.
  • MLA Style – Suggests italicizing non-English words except for full quotes in other languages, non-English titles of articles and other short works (which are placed in quotation marks instead), proper nouns, and words with an established use in English.

These variations between systems mean it is important to check your client’s style guide.

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Join the Conversation

Christian Nill says:
September 30, 2022 at 2:30AM
I am writing a memoir based largely on my time in Central America, so it contains a great many words and phrases in Spanish. I have worked assiduously to make sure they all appear in italics. But then I see a great writer like Cormac McCarthy in his Border Trilogy freely eschewing italics all the time, though his books are replete with Spanish, and he "gets away with it." Moreoever, it seems to work; at any rate it works for me when reading him. What thinkest thou? Signed, Undecided.

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