Book Titles and More: Underline, Quotation Marks or Italics?

In the typewriter age, titles were set off with quotation marks or underlining:

“Charlotte’s Web”

To Kill a Mockingbird

Underlining seems ancient today. Typographer and design expert Robin Williams puts it this way:

“Never underline. Underlining is for typewriters.”

How, then, should you denote book, magazine, movie and song titles, CDs and works of art, poems and websites? What about book chapters, magazine articles, speeches and statues? Style guides differ, but here are general guidelines.

Use italics for what are considered major works:

  • John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has been a novel, a play and a movie.
  • The Godfather ranks as one the greatest movies of all time.
  • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize and is considered a classic in modern American literature.
  • La traviata, an opera by Verdi, was performed over 4,000 times in the 2015–2016 season.
  • These two CDs have sold over 40 million copies each: Thriller by Michael Jackson and The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.
  • I subscribe online to The New York Times.
  • Newsweek stopped publishing in print in December 2012, when it transitioned to an all-digital format.

Reference books and software titles are an exception:

The Bible and books used for reference — almanacs, directories, handbooks, dictionaries — and software titles don’t need quotation marks or italics.

  • Webster’s New World College Dictionary
  • The Old Farmer’s Almanac
  • The Associated Press Stylebook
  • Microsoft Word
  • Adobe InDesign

Use quotation marks for pieces not considered major works:

Short stories or short poems

  • Famed author Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak” is considered a classic short story.
  • Have you read American poet Maya Angelou’s “Awakening in New York”?

Articles in newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals

  • Did you see “The Artist is Not Present” in today’s New York Times?
  • In its June 2018 issue, Greater Madison In Business magazine highlighted six companies in a feature titled “Small Business, Big Impact.”
  • “Smile Intensity in Photographs Predicts Longevity” was published in Psychological Science in 2010.

Titles of chapters in a book, magazine or journal

  • Chapter 8, “Appropriate Disclosure,” in Just Because You’re an Expert Doesn’t Make You Interesting by Dr. Paul Homoly, tells speakers how to enhance their authenticity and influence.
  • When you’re having a bad day, read “Using a Fake Smile to Boost Your Mood,” the twelfth chapter in Sharpen Your Positive Edge by Tina Hallis, Ph.D.

Episodes of a television series or blog post

  • I missed Madam Secretary last week, so I’ll watch “On the Clock” online before next week’s show.
  • You’ll find “When Does But Need A Comma?” on popular grammar website RuthlessEditor.com. (Note: Use quotation marks for a blog title, but don’t use italics or quotation marks for a URL.)

Titles of songs

  • “Hello” by Adele broke records when it was released on her third studio album in October 2015.
  • “Imagine” by John Lennon and “Hey Jude” by the Beatles are considered two of the most iconic songs of all time.

Titles of speeches

  • Delivered more than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” was considered a defining moment in the civil rights movement.
  • President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 “Address to the Nation on the Challenger” honored seven Americans who were killed when the space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff.

Major works of art

For this category, I generally follow Associated Press style, with the Chicago Manual of Style an occasional alternate.

AP does not use italics or quotation marks for statues, works of art or monuments, but CMS does. However, CMS adds this caveat: “Though major works of art are generally italicized, some massive works of sculpture are regarded primarily as monuments and therefore are capitalized but not italicized or enclosed in quotation marks.”

  • The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from France.
  • Have you been to Italy to see Michelangelo’s David?
  • You’ll have to travel to Copenhagen, Denmark, to see the original Little Mermaid.

Yes, you have choices.

Choosing italics or quotation marks is fairly consistent in some areas but not in others. Create your own guideline for how you will denote titles for various works, but remember that usage might be influenced by not only your preference but by your reading audience, your client, your employer, or perhaps the publication to which you are submitting a story or column.

The Last Word: Avoid underlining

One thing about designating titles is consistent: avoid underlining. You can add emphasis or make something stand out in any document with italics, bold type, “quotation marks,” using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS or by using a larger font, as exemplified by headings in this blog.

If you want your documents to be as attractive as they are well-written — or if you’re an author who plans to self-publish and do your own book formatting — invest in the version of the Robin Williams book that matches your computer. One is for Macs, and one for PCs. (Note: There is no financial benefit for me if you order a copy from these links.)

The Mac is not a typewriter 

The PC is not a typewriter 

May I add that I often do use underlining when I’m editing. As someone who writes, rewrites and rewrites, I’m not fond of the Microsoft Word Track Changes function. By the time I’ve been through a few rewrites, the changes are difficult to follow.

I use a line through to show what I suggest deleting, I make red what I suggest adding, and I use underlining to show what should be reconsidered or rewritten.

I invite your feedback, whether in the comment section below or by email, and I hope you’ll share this blog with friends and colleagues who might find it helpful.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

2 thoughts on “Book Titles and More: Underline, Quotation Marks or Italics?

  1. Diana Jackson

    Hi Kathy,

    You italicized Greater Madison in Business; do you consider it to be a “major work”?

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Diana, because the title of the article in the publication was in quotation marks, I italicized the name of the publication as the more predominant of the two. I’m sure there are differences in this practice, and there might be guides that have other recommendations. We often have choices!

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