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The Writer's Dig Blog

Do You Underline Book Titles?

By: Brian A. Klems |

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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?).


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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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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters .

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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8 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” …

    Log in to Reply
    1. flexiwing

      It’s actually spelled “Harry Potter and the Deathly HALLOWS”, not Harry Potter and the Deathly HOLLOWS.”

      Log in to Reply
    2. 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.”

      Log in to Reply
    3. BCreegan

      I wonder the same thing…
      Why put the comma inside the quotation marks? This makes no sense to me. The comma isn’t part of the title.

      Log in to Reply
  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.

    Log in to Reply
  3. Xlade

    Just curious, what would you do if you’ve got names of ships and other vehicles, since those are mainly italicized?

    Log in to Reply
    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

      Log in to Reply
  4. 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

    Log in to Reply

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Do You Underline or Italicize Book Titles?

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In this lesson, you will gain clarification on when to underline the titles of books. You will also learn when to italicize books’ titles. This lesson will explain the most common contexts for writing book titles.

Book Titles in Writing

Many of us come into contact with books on a daily basis. Sometimes we are using them for school work, reading them for enjoyment, or referring to them as a quick reference. But what about when we are writing about a book?

Books on a shelf
books on shelf

There are certain rules to follow when deciding what we should do to ensure that we are using a book’s title correctly. The book title is the name of the book, which is found on the front cover and the side of most books. Some people believe that book titles should be underlined, while others think that they should be written in italics.

Actually, it all depends on the writing tools that are being used to communicate information. The writing tools refer to whether we are using a word processor or writing with a utensil in our own hand, like an ink pen.

Underlining Titles of Books

In many classrooms, written communication takes place using the traditional method of pen or pencil on paper. We must underline the titles of books when writing this way. Underlining clearly shows that special attention should be given to the underlined information (in this case the book title). Underlining titles of books is not used nearly as often as italics. However, when handwriting information, we do not have the benefit of keyboard shortcuts and enhancements.

Hand and pencil
hand and pencil

Writing Titles in Italics

Another common way that people write is on a computer, which allows them the choice of using different keyboard options. When writing using a computer, we should type the title of the book in italics. This is the most accepted and common practice for writing titles of books.

The italics option is usually found within text programs like Microsoft Word and Google Docs. The italics mark is a slanted capital letter I at the top of the open document. This allows the lettering to slant slightly to the side. Using italics sets the title of the book apart from other words in the written text.

Book Titles Used in Different Contexts

When students are writing essays, short answer responses, or sentences in general, they should italicize a book’s title when they reference it. This is shown in the examples below for clarification.

Example 1– I had to read The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a leader for my leadership class.

Example 2– Starla found useful tips in Who Moved My Cheese.

Example 3– Our summer reading list included To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

Another context in which book titles are used would be for a works-cited page. This is also called a ‘bibliography’. A bibliography is a list of referenced materials that have been used within works, such as research papers. When writers are referring to a book’s title for a bibliography, they should write the title in italics. A few examples of what this should look like are shown below.

Example 1– Merriam, S. & Brockett, R. (2007). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Example 2– DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Example 3– Huffman, J. B., & Hipp, K. K. (2003). Reculturing schools as professional learning communities. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education.

Lesson Summary

When referring to a book title in writing, deciding whether to underline or italicize the title can be confusing. At a time when technology is so popular, we most often use computers and other electronic devices for writing. When this is the case, we must remember to write a book’s title in italics. If we are taking notes or completing an assignment the traditional way, using pen and paper, then we should underline a book title. We most often reference books in sentences and bibliographies. When using a computer, we should always write a book’s title in italics.


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Original Price

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Price after trial
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Just 
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Cancel before and your credit card will not be charged.

Your Cart is Empty. Please Choose a Product.

Study.com video lessons have helped over 30 million
students.

Students Love Study.com

“I learned more in 10 minutes than 1 month of chemistry classes”

– Ashlee P.

Earn College Credit

“I aced the CLEP exam and earned 3 college credits!

– Clair S.

Study.com video lessons have helped over half a million teachers engage their students.

Teachers Love Study.com

“The videos have changed the way I teach! The videos on Study.com accomplish in
5 minutes what would take me an entire class.”

– Chris F.

Did you know…

Students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face
instruction.

U.S. Department of Education

Study.com video lessons have helped over 500,000
teachers engage their students.


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