When writing, the decision about how to type a title can be particularly vexing. Should you underline the title, use quotations, italicize, or try some one-of-a-kind styling? To make matters more confusing, popular style guides offer different guidelines and grammar rules. Plus, the answer varies, depending on whether you have a book title, chapter title, article title, song title, or movie title on your hands. What’s a grammar enthusiast to do?
Here’s the short answer: italicize book titles.
In this article, we’ll discuss the recommendations that different style guides make and the history of how these formatting preferences evolved.
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The above guidelines apply to most books; however, book series, handbooks, reference catalogs, and canonical texts (like the Bible) tend to be handled differently. In the event that you’re writing the title of a non-standard book, be sure to check with your preferred style guide for additional advice.
When do you underline, and when do you italicize?
Since the advent of the word processor, writers have more ways to signal emphasis than ever before. Whereas, in the past, some style guides recommended underlining titles, today most prefer italics or quotation marks. When you’re writing something by hand, underline the titles that would normally be italicized.
MLA, APA, and Chicago guides agree that the use of italics is appropriate for standard book titles. Only the Associated Press prefers quotation marks for the title of a book, and that’s because they do not ever advocate the use of italics. At first, this rule seems arbitrary. After thinking about it, I can picture a foreign correspondent submitting an longhand assignment after narrowly escaping danger; the Associated Press might avoid italics for the practical reason that they’re impossible to write by hand.
It’s not hard to remember the APA style rules—they’re the simplest of the bunch. If you’re writing the title of a larger work that can stand alone, then you should use italics. For shorter works that make up a portion of a larger whole—such as journal articles, short stories, or song titles—always use quotation marks.
As a general rule, the title of an article, album, chapter, or artwork will vary significantly from one style guide to another. Poems and song titles are almost always written the same way, within double quotation marks, no matter which stylebook you use.
How to Reference a Book
Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Selected Poems. New York: Fall River Press, 2015.
This publication manual, intended for journalism writing, only recommends in-text citations:
In “Robert Frost: Selected Poems,” Frost compared…
Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” contains…
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” by J. K. Rowling became…
Frost, R. (2015). Robert Frost: selected poems. New York: Fall River Press.
Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Selected Poems. Fall River Press, 2015.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.