Editors Blog

Do You Underline Book Titles?

How do I handle book titles in my work? Do I underline them? Italicize them? Put them in quotes? —Bryan F.

This is one of those pesky questions that comes up all the time: Should I underline or italicize book titles in my writing? And it comes up for good reason: You can look at several different books, newspapers or magazine articles and see it handled several different ways. So which one is right?

The answer is: Probably all of them.

How you handle book titles in your work is a style choice not governed by grammarian law. The issue is addressed by the top stylebooks, but the answers vary.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style and the Modern Language Association, titles of books (and other complete works, such as newspapers and magazines), should be italicized. So if abiding by either of those guides, you’d italicize Stephen King’s The Shining, just as you would Vanity Fair and The Miami Herald (and Appetite for Destruction, if your protagonist is a Guns N’ Roses fan).

On the flip side, the AP Stylebook suggests that you use quotation marks around the names of books (with the exceptions of the Bible and catalogs of reference material, such as dictionaries and almanacs, which should not be styled in any way). So if you’re writing for a publication that adheres to AP guidelines, reference books with friendly quotation marks: “Eat, Pray, Love,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” and “Bossypants” (have I ever mentioned how much I love Tina Fey?).

Some publications also follow their own style guides. Here at WD, for instance, we generally follow the AP Stylebook. But, as you can see if you peruse this issue, we break from it on this topic and italicize book titles. That’s our preferred house style.

So what does this mean for you? It means: Don’t worry about it too much. Just pick one way and stick with it for consistency purposes (for example, if you italicize the name of the book your character is reading on page one of your novel, make sure you italicize it on page 214, too). All publishers have their own style, so if you’re fortunate enough to get the work in question published, an editor will edit your story to fit her style preferences anyway. Your goal is to turn in a professional-looking manuscript, and consistency in your style is one key way to do that.

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7 thoughts on “Do You Underline Book Titles?

  1. noepcampos

    I like a lot your articles, but please look at this part in “Do You Underline Book Titles?”:

    … reference books with friendly quotation marks: “Eat, Pray, Love,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” and “Bossypants” …

    WHY do writers put a comma that separates a title from other in between the quotation marks? WHY do not pay attention and put it out? As you see, it is a substitute for “and”, and nobody would put “and” in between:

    … reference books with friendly quotation marks: “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” and “Bossypants” …

    It the case, replacing “and” with a comma would be as follows:

    … reference books with friendly quotation marks: “Eat, Pray, Love”, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” and “Bossypants” …

    1. christ9000

      The reason a comma is put in between the book titles is because, while they are in quotation marks, they are still part of a list. When listing things, you put a comma in between each item. For example, if you were to say “He likes bananas, oranges, and carrots”, you would have to put commas between each item that “He” is said to like. How these commas are placed is a matter of debate for some people, since many are starting to avoid using the Oxford comma. If you do not use the Oxford comma, the sentence would read “He likes bananas, oranges and carrots.”

  2. tangletale

    I had one of those pesky old school educations so I have to offer my 2 cents: If you are referring to a major work, a book, play, album, or symphony, and I’m guessing a ship qualifies, then either Italicizing or underlining is appropriate. Before word processing became the norm this usually meant underlining as most typewriters didn’t have italics. Smaller works like a short story, a poem, a song, a magazine article and probably row boats, are indicated by quotation marks around the title.

    1. Brian A. Klems Post author

      Depends on the style of the publisher. For example, Writer’s Digest doesn’t italicize them (just treats them as regular proper nouns) but National Geographic for Kids magazine does. Just be consistent and let the editor adjust.

      Brian
      Online Editor

  3. Steve Maurer

    Hi, Brian.
    I enjoyed your article. I’ve usually used the AP style of writing as a guide. Is it possible that they use the quotes for titles since most of the writing was sent over newswire, which had little or no formatting?
    Steve

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