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¡Ay, Caramba! To Italicize Or Not To Italicize Non-English Words And Phrases


As writers, we all want our work to have that special je ne sais quoi…or is it je ne sais quoi? How do you know when to italicize a foreign phrase in your writing? Unlike conjugating verbs in Japanese, the answer is easier than you might think.

Single words or short phrases in languages other than English should always be italicized if considered unfamiliar to the reader:

Example: Eduard gave his babička a big hug at the Christmas party, after having not seen her for two years.

Example: “Bonjour, mes amis,” the French teacher greeted the students as they entered the classroom.

If the word or phrase will be used repeatedly, only the first occurrence needs to be italicized.

But should you ever NOT italicize a foreign phrase? Si, oui, and hai. In keeping with the general rules for italicization, if the non-English word or phrase appears in an already-italicized passage (such as an internal thought), the non-English portion should not be italicized..

Example: I can’t wait to see my babička next weekend, Eduard thought to himself.

If the non-English phrase makes up a complete sentence, or if the passage contains two or more sentences, set it in non-italic and use quotation marks.

Example: As an in-class assignment, the Spanish teacher had the students translate the famous opening of Don Quixote: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.”

Does the need to italicize a foreign word continue ad infinitum? Nope. Some words, although technically not English, are so commonly used that they have become part of the English dictionary. If the foreign word or phrase you are using might possibly fall into this category, check one of the major dictionaries (the OED, Merriam-Webster Inc., etc.). If it’s in the dictionary, you do not need to italicize the word(s).

Example: “Bravo!” the conductor exclaimed as the trumpeter finished her perfectly executed solo.

Example: The professor’s lesson was so disorganized, the students were convinced he was meshuggah.

And that’s it! Follow these simple rules for italicizing (or not italicizing) foreign words or phrases, and you’ll always be on terra firma. If you still have questions, the Writer’s Relief proofreaders are always here to help!

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What foreign words do you use frequently in your writing?

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2 Responses to ¡Ay, Caramba! To Italicize Or Not To Italicize Non-English Words And Phrases

  1. Thing that gets me is when you as the author are taking the liberty of “translating” dialogue that’s actually being spoken in another language. Comics do it by putting it in angle brackets/quotes (these things: ), but does straight literature recognize that? Quotes technically aren’t correct because you’re not directly quoting them.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I have been struggling with when to italicize. Sometimes, characters will talk to one another in a foreign language. I do not italicize the foreign sentences, but italicize the translation for the reader. I have been italicizing the foreign words when those words are spoken to someone who doesn’t understand.

    I’ve used the following languages in my fiction writing ~ Catalan, Swahili, Italian, German, Czech, and Cantonese.

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