Should You Italicize Foreign Words in Your Writing?
  • 3-minute read
  • 14th May 2022

Should You Italicize Foreign Words in Your Writing?

You may have been taught to use italics (i.e., a slanted typeface) whenever you use a word that’s not in English. But this advice can be confusing because English has borrowed so many foreign words. For example, patio, bagel, and emoji were once “foreign” words.

In today’s post, we’ll explain when you should and shouldn’t italicize foreign words or phrases.

When to Use Italics for Foreign Words

Italics indicate that a word belongs to another language:

We traveled down the river in a klotok.

Aji de gallina is traditionally served with half a hardboiled egg.

However, there’s no need to use italics for words commonly used in English, even if they are borrowed from a different language:

Did you check that her driver’s license was bona fide?

My uncle earns $40,000 per annum as a taxi driver.

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As a general rule, if a word or phrase has its own entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (or the OED for British English), there’s no need to italicize it. Likewise, you don’t need to use italics for proper nouns (e.g., place names) or common Latin abbreviations (e.g., etc.).

Nevertheless, even if a word isn’t in the dictionary, you don’t need to italicize it if you’re sure your readers will already know it. For example, if you’re writing for experienced chefs, you wouldn’t need to italicize words like entremets and fricassé. Similarly, if a word is in the dictionary but you’re unsure whether your readers will know it, you can italicize it if you’d like.

What do Style Guides Say About Foreign Words?

If you’re using a style guide, it will tell you whether to italicize foreign or unfamiliar words. For example, APA and Chicago styles specify that you only use italics the first time you use an unfamiliar non-English word or phrase. If you use the same word again, you should write it without italics.

In contrast, the AMA style requires you to use italics for every instance of a word or phrase that doesn’t have a standard use in English. Also, you should define it the first time you use it if the meaning isn’t clear.

Summary: Should Foreign Words be Italicized?

If you’re following a style guide, you should check its advice on italicizing non-English words. For writers without a style guide, the question of when to use italics for foreign words and phrases is largely a matter of choice. As a rule of thumb, if the word isn’t in the dictionary and you’re not sure your readers will know what it means, then you should italicize it.

Whether you choose to italicize non-English words or not, consistent formatting makes your work look more professional and is easier to read. If you’d like an expert to check your writing for errors in spelling and grammar, as well as irregular use of italics, our proofreaders are here to help. Why not try us out for free by uploading a trial document today?

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