Italics Inside Italics

The Double-Italics Problem

Another use of italics is to show that a character is thinking. (Or in first person, it is perhaps used to show thinking in words.) Examples:

...Mindy secretly thinks, I knew all British girls were heifers. (Shopaholic to the Stars, Sophie Kinsella, page 8)

John looked at the work on his desk and thought, Why am I here? Why do I still work this job?

Anyway, suppose you want to emphasize a word using italics, but the passage is already in italics. Is there anything you can do? It turns out the answer is – in theory -- yes: Unitalicize the word you want to emphasize.

But does your reader know this rule? Probably not. There's nothing intuitive about it. (Did you know this rule?) If your reader doesn't know this rule, unitalicizing won't work.

I know the rule, yet that knowledge doesn't help me -- my brain has never been able to grasp the idea that within italics, the unitalicized word gets emphasis. So, unless I put in extra thought and effort, I never read those correctly.

Did you correctly read the emphasized word in the passage that began this chapter? (Did you even notice that one word was unitalicized?)

And that is not the end of the problems. On the next page of the same book that started this chapter, we find:

... so Luke doesn't find them and say What's this? or You mean you bought it even though you knew it didn't fit?

This might look like a long passage with one word in the middle unitalicized for emphasis. But it's not -- it's two italicized thoughts separated by a word of normal narration. Here's another -- they're common.

A few from Mom asking how things are going, all met with a bland fine or it's great. (Being Sloane Jacobs, Lauren Morrill)

And this is the opposite:

More like do and die, sweetie. (Written in Fire, Sakey, page 298 trade)

Like a ghost, she appears suddenly behind me in the hallway, smiling as I turn in surprise: How are you? (Girl in Pieces, Glasgow, page 13)

So, sometimes the unitalicized word is a return to narration, and sometimes it's used to show emphasis. Do we really expect readers to sort this out? The following are two examples where both happens:

Vivvie's voice was hoarse. Like she'd been yelling, or crying -- or, I told myself, trying to be rational, like she has strep throat and that is why she hasn't been at school. (Fixer, Barnes, page 107)

But we'd be better off with his paintings, Jay thought. There's so much the ranch needs. (Perfect Touch, Lowell, page 10)

And the following unitalicizes one word for emphasis and unitalicizes the very next as a return to normal.

So they can say: It could have been me. So they can say: I could tell something wasn't... (How to Be Safe, McAllister, page 6)

So, unitalicizing a word for emphasis is pretty much a waste of time -- it's more likely to create confusion and error than accomplish what you want it to.

All-caps is a potential solution to showing emphasis within an italicized passage. It's not ideal, assuming that All-Caps shows an emphasis slightly differently from how italics shows emphasis. But if you decide you need emphasis, you might be willing to sacrifice that small difference.

I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN. (Misery, page 118).

King used "small caps" -- the capital letters are smaller than normal. It's an interesting idea, but apparently it did not catch on.