Italicizing Foreign Words

By Maeve Maddox

background image 284

Karin-Marijke Vis wrote:

What to do with foreign words? Do I put them in Italics, or in single or double quotes? And then, is there a difference in for example the word ‘retsina’, that my dictionary knows, or ‘kafé’ that the dictionary doesn’t know [both words relate to a story in Greece]. Same about Indian words, are ‘nan’ and ‘puja’ officially acknowledged words or should they be written in Italics, or with quotes?

Whether or not to italicize foreign words depends upon the word’s familiarity to the intended audience, the context in which the word appears, and the frequency with which the word appears in a given text.

In American usage, if a foreign word has an entry in Merriam-Webster, it need not be italicized. According to that rule of thumb, kafé and nan would be italicized; retsina and puja, not.

However, if the writer feels that a word is largely unfamiliar to the intended audience, italicizing it may be the reasonable thing to do, dictionary entry notwithstanding.

If the word is going to be used frequently in the text, then it need be italicized only the first time it is introduced. For example, in a story with a Hindu setting, the word puja would probably occur frequently. The first time it could be defined as “a Hindu act of worship” and thereafter used without italics.

Here are some guidelines for the use of italics with foreign words in an English text.

1. If only one unfamiliar foreign word or brief phrase is being used, italicize it.

2. If an entire sentence or passage of two or more sentences appear in a foreign language, type the passage in plain type and put the passage in quotation marks.

3. If the foreign word is a proper noun, do not italicize it.

4. If you are using two foreign words or phrases, one familiar and one unfamiliar, italicize both of them for consistency and appearance.

5. Common Latin words and abbreviations like etc., et al., and ibid. need not be italicized. An exception is sic, which should be italicized and placed in square brackets.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
APA Style Guide
Chicago Manual of Style

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Vocabulary category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:

13 Responses to “Italicizing Foreign Words”

  • Dave

    Personally, whenever I write a foreign word, I render it in the Katakana alphabet. Italics are for sissies.

  • Mono

    I find that I tend to italicize foreign words if they’re from a language that seems…feminine. I italicize French, for example, along with Latin, Spanish and Italian. Languages like Hungarian, though, I tend not to italicize–it’s more of a BOLD language, but I’d kill myself if I ever actually bolded sentences in a piece I’ve written.

    Also, Dave; you make a compelling point. It’s the only thing Katakana is good for, though, I find.

  • Karin-Marijke

    Thanks Maeve for your extensive reply. It is exactly the info I’m looking for!

  • lovkesh

    actually these words are not enough but u should give more words

  • mara

    Sorry your link to subscribe to your daily news is broken and so it
    is my chance to receive the Basic English Grammar ebook.

  • Rebecca

    Where do I explain what the foreign word means?

  • niranjana

    how should i explain d meaning of a italicized paragraph?

  • Allison

    @ Rebecca and niranjana-use footnotes

  • Molly

    I run a magazine for foreigners living in Japan, and my editing staff and I run into this question a lot. Opinion is split down the middle between our staff. Because the bulk of our readers are residents of Japan, my personal stance is that there’s no reason to italicize Japanese words. They aren’t foreign to our audience and there’s no need to point them out as such. Ultimately, we leave the decision up to our contributors. If someone italicizes the Japanese, we leave it italicized. But if someone doesn’t italicize their foreign words, then we don’t go in and change that.

  • Donna

    is it bad form to use real latin words when using magical spells in fiction? Or should you just make up the word?

  • Carolina Arnold

    When writing a resume in English, should the names of foreign institutions be italicized? (Université de Lausanne, Universitat Bern, Haute École Pédagogique de Lausanne, Switzerland)



  • Maeve Maddox

    Carolina Arnold,
    No need to italicize. In fact, in the case of Université and Universitat, there’s no reason not to write “University of Bern,” “University of Lausanne.” In the case of “Haute École Pédagogique de Lausanne,” on the other hand, translating would not convey the same thing in English, so you’d want to keep that in the foreign language.

  • Ed

    I use several obscure classical music terms two or three times only in a literary work I’m writing. Most of these terms are Latin terms. Since I only use each term twice or thrice at most, would it be okay to italicize the terms each time they appear, or should I stick to only italicizing their initial use and leave the second and third usages of the terms unitalicized? Is it author’s discretion when the term is used only twice but mandatory to not italicize subsequent usages when the term is used more than twice?

Leave a comment: