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The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 3: Bells and whistles? The use of bold, italics and capital letters in prose fiction


Bells and whistles? The use of bold, italics and capital letters in prose fiction

There are times when, no matter how well you write, you need typographical support to emphasise a point. English is a wonderfully flexible and suggestive language, but it can't do everything by itself, and replacing plain type with, for instance, italics, can really help the reader to understand what's happening in your story.

In this article, we will look at the use of these non-standard fonts and suggest a few simple rules of thumb.

Let's start with bold face type. In recent years, I've seen quite a lot of writing that incorporates bold type and, I have to say, I don't think it works. Bold stands out from plain type so strongly that it can easily distract the eye; when you are reading continuous prose and following a narrative, that tends to work against comprehension rather than for it.

I can't off-hand think of a situation in which bold is necessary in prose fiction, and I'd recommend you avoid it. The only exceptions to this advice (and even here I would think carefully before using it) might be children's fiction and fiction that draws from graphic novels and comic books. Otherwise, I think it's hard to justify.

Capital letters are increasingly used, even in commercially published books, to indicate that a character is shouting:

Hattie glanced across the street. A pot-bellied individual in a string vest stood on the front doorstep of a shabby house, bellowing, ‘COME IN HERE, TARQUIN, YOU LITTLE BLEEDER!'

This certainly adds notional decibels to the line of dialogue but I would argue that it's not strictly necessary; the word ‘bellowing' is an indication of high volume and I think it does the job. Moreover, like bold, capitals tend to draw the eye; if you turn the page and see block capitals, your eye goes to them first, and that's not always a good thing. I'd confidently wager that you looked at the capitals in the example here before you read the full text.

So again, I'd advise that you avoid the use of capitals unless it is absolutely necessary; it might feel necessary, for instance, if you are indicating a confused babble of voices and want to show that one voice rises above the others:

Everyone starting talking at once.

‘He's going to get us all killed!'

‘I don't want to die.'

‘He's crazy.'


Even here, I think you can manage without capitals. A good dialogue tag will give the reader enough information to understand what's going on:

‘Shut up, the lot of you!' Manfried shouted above the din.

The tendency of these fonts to draw the eye leads, I think, to another problem. Suppose you turn the page and, two-thirds of the way down, this appears:


I think this constitutes a spoiler. It's entirely likely that the time and effort you expended carefully crafting the preceding paragraphs, to build up dramatic tension, has just gone up in smoke along with the protagonist's living room.

Italics are a very different kettle of typographical fish. There are a number of conventional uses for italics in prose fiction that definitely enhance the reader's understanding.

Here is a list of the most common uses:

  • Introducing a foreign word or phrase
  • Indicating thought as opposed to speech
  • Referring to a book, film, TV programme or play (but not, interestingly, a song)
  • Indicating a flashback or dream sequence
  • Emphasising a word or phrase where the emphasis is not obvious from the words alone

Each of these items is a useful addition to the author's toolbox, though there are some grey areas here. Some ‘foreign' words have become English through longstanding use; some are making that transition as we speak. I wouldn't, for instance, use italics for schadenfreude, guerilla, or déjà vu; these terms are happily resident in conventional English.

I'd say that savoir faire is a borderline case; it's used regularly in English writing but sometimes writers use it to indicate something quintessentially French. So there is a continuum here: from definitely novel (and therefore in italics), through relatively common (possibly in italics), to native status (in which case no italics needed).

Another thing; if the word you are introducing is used frequently in your text, you can probably get away with using italics for the first iteration and using plain type after that. A period novel I recently edited used the French term guichet (a small opening or grille) fairly frequently. I set the first iteration in italics and allowed plain type afterwards, and I think this is legitimate, not to mention easier on the reader's eye.

I'm not the biggest fan of Word's spell check software, but it's quite a useful guide here; if the word is not flagged by the dreaded red squiggle, that's an indication that it is now an accepted English word (assuming, of course, you have spelled it correctly...).

Using italics for a character's thoughts is simple and effective:

‘That's a beautiful necklace,' I said. And I know you stole it.

This has become standard in English prose and I recommend you use it, particularly in a passage that includes both spoken dialogue and thought. So has using italics for reference quotes:

The club was heaving. All the leather and studs made me feel like an extra in a Mad Max movie.

Note that if you use italics in this way, quote marks are not necessary. On the other hand, if you refer to a song, you do need quote marks, but not italics:

He drove with one hand on the wheel, singing along to ‘Nights in White Satin' and conducting the band with his free hand.

Italics are used for flashbacks or dream sequences to distinguish them from the main narrative; you occasionally see prologues in italics too, usually when the prologue is set in a different timeframe than the main narrative. This is convenient but not always strictly necessary; if you, for instance, are using dated headings (Paris, June 1944) in the book, the heading will do the job.

And now the tricky bit: emphasis. In theory, italics are used to indicate a stressed word or phrase that is not obvious from the wording; in practice, this often descends into a kind of typographical soup with italicised croutons floating everywhere. If you get this wrong, it's more confusing than leaving everything in plain type. As usual in good writing, don't go overboard: less is always better.

The best tool for deciding what words require italics is your ear. Say the line aloud; you should hear where the extra stress occurs. Now check the sentence as written and see if the stressed word is obvious from the writing. If it isn't, italicise it.

Let's look at a couple of examples:

Tanya was incandescent. ‘That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.

I think the emphasis is clear in this example. You could argue that putting ‘mine' in italics adds to the effect, but it isn't absolutely necessary here. And here's a troubling thought; almost every word in this line could, in theory, be in italics, depending on the speaker and the situation:

That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.
‘That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.
‘That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.
‘That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.
‘That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.
‘That laptop is mine, not yours,' she hissed.

However, unless you are trying to make a very specific point about Tanya, or her interlocutor, the best option here is not to use italics. The words in the text are perfectly clear, and the emphasis is already there.

In this next example, that's not the case:

‘Where's Major Tomkins?' asked Ruth. ‘He's in command here, isn't he?'

‘He was in command.' Bulgakov made a pistol shape with his fingers. ‘But we, ah, demoted him.'

Without the italics, the reader will likely get to the end of the key dialogue line and do a cartoon double take: he was in command of what?

‘Where's Major Tomkins?' asked Ruth. ‘He's in command here, isn't he?'

‘He was in command.' Bulgakov made a pistol shape with his fingers. ‘But we, ah, demoted him.'

Here the meaning is perfectly clear, and italics have made the difference. And they have done so with a minimum of fuss. Some new writers might be tempted to add more words in italics, for effect:

‘He was in command.' Bulgakov made a pistol shape with his fingers. ‘But we, ah, demoted him.'

This is not incorrect, it's just a slight case of overkill; the rest of the line has already made the meaning clear. The temptation to add typographical emphasis where it's not necessary pollutes your prose with superfluous decoration, like fairy lights on a dustbin. Avoid it if you can.

The core lesson here is that well-constructed prose will do most of the heavy lifting. If it doesn't, there are tools to hand; but you should use them prudently.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 1: Accents

The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 2: Dialogue tags

The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 4: Spoilt for choice: formats and fonts

The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 5: The trouble with ‘as'