Italicizing the Other

Back in college, I majored in physics and astrophysics. Often times, that background actually serves me well as a writer and editor. I learned to read things carefully and developed a keen eye for precision in language. Even so, it sometimes gets me in trouble in the writing world. You see, physicists are trained to ask why things work. We take a lot of math courses where we are presented with rules, but told not to accept them at face value. Mathematical theorems must be proven to work. Language also has its share of grammar and spelling rules that have evolved over time. However, sometimes I find myself asking why those rules need to be. More than once, I’ve frustrated writers and editors with my desire to understand why a rule must be applied, rather than just accepting what’s stated in a style guide.

A case in point is the rule that says you must italicize words from foreign languages. Part of the problem is that this is a “soft” rule because it contains the caveat that foreign words in common use don’t need to be italicized. Given the evolving nature of language and the shrinking of the world because of travel and the internet, this can be a fuzzy line.

Gutenberg Bible Page

At one point, I had been told this was a rule that stems from Victorian England and was started as a way to indicate the inferiority of non-English words. However, in doing some research, I find the practice of italicizing at least some foreign words is much older than the Victorian age and goes back at least to the beginning of typography. I have also found the rule expressed in Italian, Spanish, and French grammar guides as well as English ones. However, I have not seen the practice widely used by Germans. The photo at the left shows a page of the Gutenberg Bible which shows words (though not foreign words) highlighted in a different color for emphasis.

The most convincing argument I’ve seen for italicizing foreign words was attributed to Sandra Cisneros, who suggests that it can be helpful for distinguishing words that look alike but sound different and mean different things. A good example would be the English word mole (a small animal) and the Spanish word mole (pronounced molay and means a sauce). However, even within English, we have confusing words such as lead (pronounced leed and meaning to take charge and variations thereon) and lead (pronounced led and meaning the base metal). As an editor, I often see led (the past tense of the verb “to lead”) misspelled as “lead”.

The most convincing argument I’ve heard for not italicizing foreign words is that it doesn’t really reflect the way we use language. For example, living in New Mexico, less than an hour from the Mexican border, many of my neighbors of all ethnicities are fluent in both English and Spanish. They intermix words and phrases from both languages without really thinking about it. As a writer in this region, that usage is something I want to reflect. However, do I really represent the way they are using language accurately if I italicize a large percentage of their dialog?

Because of this last reason, my tendency is to avoid the practice of italicizing foreign words in my writing even though it’s recommended in most style guides. It’s a practice that seems more divisive than inclusive. That said, I’m always willing to consider alternative points of view as long as they address the reason why the rule exists as opposed to a rote quoting of style guides. I’d be especially interested if anyone can give me a good reference to a history of how this practice of italicizing foreign words came about—or really any good history of English grammar.

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10 comments on “Italicizing the Other

  1. David B. Riley says:

    Beats me. I slept through English class.

    • David B. Riley says:

      Seriously, the concept is to alert a reader that this word is not misspelled or that it may have a different meaning than an English term of similar spelling. However, English tends to absorb foreign words and they quickly aren’t foreign any longer.

      • Your last point is a big part of the issue. Words are assimilated so fast, it’s hard to set a standard for what’s “foreign” and what’s spoken by the family down the street. In my case, with Spanish, we’re talking several families, all of whom have lived in my town longer than I have. As I think about it, this may be something where technology may eventually help. E-readers already let readers see definitions. Perhaps in the future, writers and editors will have the option of pointing those definitions to the one that’s meant. No highlighting, but a quick way to help the reader if they’re confused.

  2. This is a thought-provoking post. In fantasy, I italicize some foreign words (in this case from made-up languages) to emphasize that the word or phrase is from some arcane language or other. And it feels exotic. Oddly, however, not all of these terms want to be italicized. So far my editors have tended to leave that up to me, but I never assume there isn’t a style convention somewhere that I’m cavalierly throwing to the wind.

    • Thanks! You raise a whole new interesting point — made-up languages that no one can look up in any dictionary. What I wrote in reply to David, though, could be one answer, allowing the author to link to definitions of unfamiliar words. Of course, that breaks down in print books. Sure, you can have a glossary, but it still could be helpful to italicize to alert the reader to look it up there. I guess if there’s a “call to action” in this post, it’s simply to use this rule thoughtfully and consider your readership when you do.

  3. You could use angle brackets,

  4. lazloferran says:

    Good article: I sometimes use made-up words, when a character has made it up or perhaps in sci-fi where it is justified for some new entity or experience. I never feel the need to italisise it for precisely the reason you state: singling it out makes it seem unnatural and I want my readers to feel that the word is used naturally in that situation/context. I do feel that there needs to be a proper guide to grammar. Strunk and White is goo but really something much more comprehensive ( with a decent index ) is needed. It should also have a section on the history of English Grammar. I too often get confused. Even two very reputable editors can disagree on some points because the rules shift/aren’t pinned down

    • Thanks for your comments. You make some great points. I think there is a market for a good style guide that clearly states suggested rules, but also gives some history for the rule. The guide I turn to most is The St. Martin’s Handbook, which provides a little more explanation than some other guides and is nicely indexed, but still falls short of giving the history that would be helpful to authors and editors about making decisions about these “fuzzy” rules.

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