Titles are everywhere; we need them in order to be able to refer to any of the countless stories, pictures, blogs, movies, books, songs, and other works of art being created every single day. Since most writing is about things you’ve experienced- things you’ve read, seen, heard, or touched – chances are very high that you will be including a title of something one day in your writing.
Before that happens, though, you need to know the rules that govern how to correctly write titles. And when I say “titles,” I’m not referring to forms of addressing people. Although I’m sure there are specific rules of etiquette that govern when to call someone “Miss” or “Ms.,” the rules I will be describing in this post apply to works of art, like books and music.
When it comes to titles, you can either italicize them or put them in quotation marks. The 7th edition of the MLA Handbook eliminates underlining (underlining is still acceptable when hand-writing papers). Skip to the end of this post to see a note about underlining titles. Keeping the rules for italicizing and using quotation marks straight isn’t easy, which is why there are different techniques that make remembering when to do what easier.
Big Things and Little Things
One way of looking at titles is to determine if it belongs to something that is big or something that is little. A big thing is something that contains little things. For example, a CD album contains many songs. A book contains many chapters. An anthology contains many essays or stories. A web site contains many web pages. A TV series contains many episodes. You get the point.
Once you’ve determined if the title you’re trying to punctuate belongs to a big thing or a little thing, you can punctuate it. The titles of big things are always italicized, while the titles of little things are placed within quotation marks. The following are some examples of properly punctuated titles:
- Words Fail Me is a book with a chapter “Are Your Eggs Ready to Hatch?”
- The first episode of first season of the British television series Black Books is called “Cooking the Books.”
- “Head Over Feet” is a song on Alanis Morissette’s third studio album Jagged Little Pill.
As nice as the “big things/little things” trick is for remembering how to punctuate titles, it stops working when it encounters more complex collections of art. For example, how do you punctuate the titles of the plays you bought in a book called The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare? Are they considered chapters? They are little things inside of a bigger book, after all. What about Beowulf? It’s a poem, which is a little thing, but the MLA Handbook says that poems which are “long” need to be italicized. What exactly does “long” mean and how are you going to remember to include those poems in with big things?
Don’t toss the towel in yet on this whole punctuating titles business – I’ve come up with a different way to remember whether or not to italicize or put a title in quotation marks.
Can You Buy It?
If you can go out and physically buy a copy of whatever title it is you’re trying to punctuate, italicize it. If you can’t, put it in quotation marks.
Since you can go to Barnes and Noble and find Beowulf on the shelves, it gets italicized. The same can be said about each one of Shakespeare’s plays; you can find them in one large collected works book OR you can find them sold individually. What you can’t do is drop by Blockbuster and try to rent ONLY the one episode of Lost you missed. You have to rent the DVD that has several episodes on it, one of which being the episode you missed. Therefore, you put episode titles of television series in quotation marks.
This idea even works for web sites and web pages. When you buy a domain, you’re buying only up to the first .com or .org or .info (or whatever extension you chose). So only that much of a web site gets italicized (For example, GuildWars.com or Writing Simplified). Anything after the first extension is a sub page on the web site, and gets placed inside of quotation marks (For example, the “About Me” section of my blog or any one of the titles of my individual blog posts).
Even this trick for remembering how to punctuate titles breaks down, though. You can buy singles of songs and there are entire works of fiction put online for free all the time. Taken in conjunction with the “big things/little things” technique, the “Can you buy it?” trick should help you get through punctuating at least 98% of every title you’ll encounter successfully.
For the other 2% of titles you encounter and don’t know what to do with, well, that’s what I’m here for. Use your professor! Don’t feel embarrassed about asking when you’re unsure about how to do something. Chances are, your teacher won’t know the answer off the top of his/her head either and will learn something in the process of looking it up for you.
Names of Forms, Games, Restaurants, Etc.
Style guides like those published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) are great sources to turn to when you need to know how to punctuate something properly for a paper. But if you’re not writing an academic paper or your writing includes topics that aren’t typically found in professional publications, they won’t provide you with the answers you need. For those issues, you have to rely on your own judgment in applying the rules because an official standard hasn’t been set.
- Names of Forms: It’s rare for someone to cite a blank document (i.e., an unfilled-out form) so examples of this in published peer-reviewed literature are scarce. However, webpages and print documents refer to form titles when indicating that such and such a form needs to be filled out, or explaining the purpose of certain forms. Every single instance that I've seen so far simply capitalizes the first letter of each word in the form title. For example: "Fill out the Motor Vehicle Records Form to request information about a particular vehicle involved in an accident," "If you are employed in the US, you must fill out a W-4 Form," and "Make sure to fill out all shaded areas in Form I-765." Also notice that the word “Form” is in every name.
- Names of Restaurants: I still remember when it was natural to go to a bookstore to pick up a restaurant guide. Nowadays, you turn to the Internet for restaurant reviews and suggestions, so finding a print standard for how to punctuate the title is difficult. As far as the online standard goes, you have the choice to either 1) capitalize the first letter of each word in the restaurant’s name or 2) italicize (or underline!) the restaurant’s name. You would never put the name in quotation marks, though. As the restaurant is the “big” thing that includes “smaller” things like menu choices, you would put the names of dishes in quotation marks, unless it’s a general food item that’s well known. For example, “Have you been to Chili’s? I love their chicken parmesan,” or “I’ll see you at Hula Hut. Don’t forget to order me the ‘Funky Dunky Onion Strings’.” Both examples show acceptable ways to punctuate.
- Names of Games: Since the games themselves are the "big" thing that include smaller components, I would italicize their titles. For example, Magic: the Gathering is a card game similar in playing style to Pokemon Trading Card Game. I did run a quick search through a research database to see how peer-reviewed journal articles treat game titles as games are a popular topic of education-related journals. The articles I found only capitalized the first letter of each word in the game's name without italicizing or underlining it. However, no article ever placed the game's name inside quotation marks. With that evidence, I'd say it's a matter of personal preference whether to italicize the name or leave it unembellished. I personally prefer the italics since it's what the rule would call for.
- Etc.: Use your personal judgment in applying the rules or drop me a line (in a comment or an e-mail). I’ll update this list with more troublesome title issues as I’m made aware of them.
A Note About Underlining Titles
Before the advent of computers and word-processing programs, there were only two options available to you when punctuating a title: underlining or quotation marks. When computers starting to become more commonplace, a third option - italicization - was added as an alternative to underlining.
Underlining titles was viewed as necessary only when handwriting titles because it is difficult to italicize one's own handwriting - especially if you're writing in cursive. Many style manuals now omit underlining as an option, stating that computers are accessible to the majority of people living in today's society and underlining is no longer needed.
However, there ARE a couple of situations that still exist where italics is either not supported or redundant:
- Social Media: Some social applications online (e.g., Facebook) do not support embedded HTML code, which means when adding comments you do not have the option of italicizing your font.
- Italicized Fonts: If you enjoy using fonts other than the default Times New Roman or Calibri, you may run across lovely fonts that mimic cursive handwriting. Although it is possible to italicize those fonts even more, the difference between regular and italicized versions of the font is often imperceptible and could confuse your reader.
When you find yourself in a situation where italicizing your font is simply not an option, surround the words you want underlined with underline dashes (Shift + the dash key). For example, I am reworking my father’s book _Dan, A Man Without Youth_ while concurrently working on my own book, tentatively titled _Online Tools for Writers_.
Good luck with your writing endeavors! If you have any questions about how to go about punctuating titles or getting around the character limitations of online programs, send them my way and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Photo credit: Lutrus