There can be a lot of confusion when it comes to modern formatting rules when you’re typing out a document. This confusion exists because of changes that occurred when typewriters were replaced by word processors and then computers.
Typewriters did not offer the same level of font customization as computers and word processors do today. For that reason, it became necessary to create certain “identification” rules for book titles and other words being mentioned within the text.
For modern writing, unless it happens to be on a typewriter, italics should be used if that is an option. Do you underline book titles? The answer is even more confusing: sometimes.
Why Are Underlines Still Accepted for Book Titles?
When the title of a book is being discussed within some sort of text, then there are three points of focus that must be placed on that title to determine how it should be identified.
- The kind of title is being used, such as a book, magazine, poem, novel, play, etc.
- The length of the title being included in the text.
- The type of title being used, such as the title of a chapter within a book, poem, or play.
If at all possible, whenever a book title is being discussed in dialogue or text, then the full-length of that title should be italicized. For example: Have you recently read To Kill a Mockingbird?
Notice that the punctuation should not be italicized and the word “to” is capitalized, even though your grammar checker will note an error. This is because it starts the title and the punctuation mark is not part of the title. Only book title components receive the italicized font.
If your computer, word processor, or typewriter will not insert italicized text into the document, then it would be considered acceptable to still underline the book title. For example: Have you recently read To Kill a Mockingbird?
Notice the same title formatting rules still apply. The punctuation mark is not underlined and the word “to” is capitalized.
What About the Titles of Short Stories, Poems, and Similar Works?
If you’re mentioning the title of a shorter work, such as a novella, article, or book chapter, then underlining the title is considered to be improper formatting. The first option for noting the title should still be an italicized text. For example: Have you read I Carry Your Heart with Me by E.E. Cummings?
This allows the reader to quickly identify the title of the work being mentioned. Because that work is a published work, just as a book is published, the italicized font is still the preferred formatting option.
If italicized fonts are not an option for your typing, then the second-best option for shorter works like this is to put the title into quotations. For example: Have you read “I Carry Your Heart with Me” by E.E. Cummings?
If you happen to use quotations, then any punctuation for the sentence would be outside of the quotation marks. For example: Have you ready “I Carry Your Heart with Me”? This is different than punctuation rules for quoted dialogue. If the title includes punctuation, however, it should be italicized or put into quotations.
There Is One Specific Exception to This Rule
For the most part, using italics, underlines, and quotation marks to indicate the title of a book or shorter work is pretty straight-forward. There is one clear and specific exception to this rule that must be noted.
If you are discussing a series of books within the same collection and these mentions all appear within the same paragraph or page section, then the title of the collection is what should be italicized or underlined. The remaining titles, even if they are books, should then be put in quotation marks only.
For example: I recently finished reading The Chronicles of Narnia. I loved many of the books, but I think “The Silver Chair” and “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” were my favorites out of the series.
And then there’s one more rule to consider. If you are mentioning two different works within the same paragraph or section, then the largest work should be the one that receives the italics or underlining. The smaller work would then receive quotation marks. You’ll often see this rule apply if you’re talking about the specific chapter of a book.
As Grammarly puts it: “In Little Women, Beth March dies in Chapter 40, “The Valley of the Shadow”.
Notice the period outside of the quotation marks.
By following these rules, you’ll be able to modernize your writing and allow your reader to understand specifics without creating confusion.