Friday, January 7, 2011

Underline or Italicize--Is Either Wrong?

My judges for The Sandy constantly correct authors over whether it is proper to underline or italicize words intended to be emphasized. Is one or the other really correct?

I suspect it's a stylistic preference that agents and editors really couldn't care less about. If it's not done the way they prefer at their publishing house, the copy editor will correct it. I've never heard of an agent or editor rejecting a wonderful story because the author didn't know this picayune point of grammar.

What do you guys think?


magolla said...

Just pick one way and stick with it.

IMO the reason for the underline is becoming a moot point and writer judges need to get with technology.

Nit-picky stuff like this doesn't really matter in the big picture--STORY DOES. Quit fussing with the little stuff and concentrate the story.

As a judge for numerous RWA contests over many years, I HATE reading technically correct stories as many of them have had their passion tamped down through overworking--and when I say passion, I'm talking about voice and style, not sex. True, it might be a thing of grammatical beauty, but it has no life, no energy, no emotion. I'd rather have an imperfect entry that has style and passion.

Craft can be learned, good storytelling can't.

Vince said...

Hi Theresa:

I was a copy editor in advertising for many years and an underline meant ‘italicize’. What was underlined was italicized by the printer. If the writer can type the italicized words herself, then just italicize it and that‘s that.

However, what I have seen is that now that the writer can italicize words directly, she will use an underline to create a second method of adding emphasis. I think using both in the same document is the problem.


Donnell said...

T. Margaret and Vince are geniuses. Consistency is key. And what Margaret said about craft vs. storytelling, I couldn't have said it better.

I certainly hope judges won't nitpick a story too much. You want the cream to rise to the top and put those in front of your final round judges.

Theresa said...

I agree, Margaret. I'm going to make a point of telling my judges NOT to even remark on something as picky as that--though in their defense, they never took points off for it. But it's the spirit of the correction that bothers me--now that I think about it.

Vince has a good point. It probably used to be underline as a cue to the printer person to italicize, before computers which allow us to italicize the word ourselves. I never thought of that.
Thanks for the opinions everybody!

Leslie Ann said...

I like the italics, it makes it easier to read and know that I'm reading internal thought.

I'm assuming that's what you all meant? Italics = internal thought?

I was told by a Jr. High teacher I'd never be a writer, b/c I didn't work on the grammer. Killed my writing right there until I realized it was in my blood...unfortunately realized it many years later.

Let the story shine!

All the rest can be fixed.

~Scribe LA

Vince said...


Sorry, the copy editor in me just can’t resist. Italics can mean more than just internal dialogue.

1. foreign words (not yet incorporated into English).
2. titles of books, plays, movies, songs, etc.
3. quotes from other published works
4. Names of ships
5. emphasis added to a quote that was not italicized to being with
6. a made-up words like spazat! Which you introduce into a story and which I just made up on the fly. :_)
7. a chemical formula (sometimes)
8. part of a symbolic logic argument (sometimes)

I better stop.

I like your comment about the teacher and grammar.

When I was taking Latin years ago, I was told that the word ‘child’ could be masculine, feminine, or neuter. It could be singular or plural. And that there were there were seven cases in both singular and plural. And there were five declensions. That means that the word ‘child’ could have up to 42 different endings. Of course, you had to get the declension right!

I told the teacher, no Roman little kid could ever learn to speak Latin!

He said: No problem, the language came first. Grammarians came much later to try and sort things out.


Donnell said...

Vince, a comment to your comment :) What say you about how fast grammar changes. And the fact that it seems to confuse everybody these days. When I edited for newspapers, series commas were the norm, now they are all but defunct. Fiction is such an entirely different beast than nonfiction. Do you ever find it confusing?

Leslie Ann said...

Yeah, you got me. I was strictly thinking novels and I how use them. I use an underline to denote titles.

That's a great list, thanks.


Magolla, right on!! errrr, write on :)

Vince said...

Hi Donnell:

With fiction and with advertising (some would say they are the same thing) the key is having the sentence read with ease and with only one meaning. If this is achieved, I don’t worry about the punctuation at all.

When a reader has to read a sentence twice or three times to get the intended meaning, that becomes a big problem – even if the punctuation is perfect. In fact, in fiction it is possible for the creative use of white space to act as punctuation.