A branch of the Indo-European language family, including Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, and Faliscan, as well as Latin's descendants, the Romance languages. It was originally spoken in the Apennine Peninsula in the 1st millennium BC. The only survivor after that period was Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and, later, western Christendom.

Latin is the language of Latium and of Rome; its earliest known documents date from the 6th century BC. From the 3rd century BC, Latin began to emerge as the predominant language of Italy, and by 100 AD, it had effaced all dialects between Sicily and the Alps, with the exception of Greek in the colonies of Magna Graecia.

The alphabets used for writing these languages included the Greek alphabet, the Roman alphabet, and derivations of the Etruscan alphabet.

There are several acceptable ways to ascribe emphasis to printed text. Two most common methods involve using italic or bold fonts (with italic font being more prevalent in officially published materials). At the same time, there is a number of ways traditionally deemed inappropriate by the publishing industry. These include increasing distance between adjacent letters, changing font color, underlining text and changing interline distance.

In the recent years, many of these timeless industry conventions have been broken by the internet. This apparent lack of consistent standards has inadvertently challenged italics as the method of choice. Nonetheless, italic fonts, which celebrated their 500-year birthday in 2001, remain incredibly popular both in printed press and online publications.

Aldo Mannucci (Manutius) (1449-1515), Italian scholar, editor and printer, is credited with inventing italic type. He was the first to use it in a Virgil edition of 1501. While it might have been dedicated to the States of Italy (see Webster_1913 writup), Mannucci’s original intention was to emulate official hand-written documents issued by the Pope. Eventually when the type began making its way across Europe and beyond Italy's borders it became known as "italic".

It's a common misconception that italic is simply regular text at, say, a 23° angle. That could be considered an oblique but not an italic.

To me, the italic is a more pure representation of the designer himself.
They represent the cursive, longhand script — showing what the face could be if it were a writing style.
Like fraternal twins, Italics exist separate from the Roman and are its equal.
Even so, of the two, I find this the more attractive.
(You may notice that the capitals are not sloped. More on that later.)

Italics vary from Romans in a number of different ways:

  • Italics are generally cursive.
  • Italics tend to slope at an angle which roughly approximates the natural angle for handwriting. Romans are typically perpendicular to the baseline.
  • The serifs on an italic are usually placed at the exit and entry points of the letter, making them transitive versus the intransitive Romans which place serifs at the ends of the individual strokes composing the letter.


A comprehensive history of italics closely mirrors the history of serif faces. Instead, I'll present a short background of italics over time here and eventually create a full historical writeup under serif.

Italics are an invention of the Italian Renaissance. The first of their kind was created in 1499 by Francisco Griffo for publisher, Aldus Manutius who commissioned their creation. In memory of him, italics of this type and time period are called Aldine Italics. Early italics generally had a cursive appearance (since they represented handwriting) but lacked a sizeable slope (2 or 3° was common but there are examples of italics with no slope whatsoever). At most, the slope would be 10° while the overall letter shape was usually elliptical with a light, modulated stroke on a humanist axis, all representative of its strong relation to calligraphy and the broadnib pen. Usually the x-height (roughly the height of a lowercase letter in comparison to an uppercase one) was modest. Examples of italics from this time are Monotype Arrighi, based on the 1524 italics of Ludovico degli Arrighi, and Bembo Italic. In reality, while the lowercase are historically accurate, the uppercase and other figures are not because, at the time, the typographical family structure was very different. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the majuscule (uppercase) and miniscule (lowercase) alphabets were not combined. Therefore, the italic alphabet was entirely lowercase and used the same, upright uppercase as the Roman lowercase. I know of only one type face that follows this tradition (ITC Novarese) and the combination of a Roman uppercase with an italic lowercase designed for it is interesting yet harmonious to look at.

During this early period, the separation of roman and italic lowercases was logical since the two were kept entirely separate; entire books would be set in roman or italic but never mixed both. This started to change in the 16th century and, as a result, italics did as well. Poetica by Robert Slimbach and Galliard (based on Robert Granjon) represent this modification, the Mannerist letter. Both contain sloped roman and the italic form is more exaggerated:

  • Ascenders and descenders are large in comparison to the x-height.
  • Swashes appear on letters.
  • Slope angles increased to approximately 15° from the perpendicular.

In the 1800s, during the Baroque period (which can be seen in Janson Text and Adobe Caslon), roman and italic began to be freely mixed on the page and within lines causing italics to be used to stress particular words or phrases. In an attempt to make italics stand out more, they turned almost bizarre:

  • Slope increased to up to 25° but typically varied widely from letter to letter within the face.
  • Axis similarly varied by letter - sometimes humanist, sometimes left-handed, sometimes vertical.
  • Meanwhile, contrast and x-height increased but aperatures were greatly reduced.
The end result is that italics became somewhat of an incongruous mess, causing a backlash to standardize the italics which reshaped them as little more than a sloped roman lowercase, leaving many of the more recent italics to be, in reality, an oblique in the Neo-Classical and Romantic styles.

The result of this subjugation is that the obliques masquerading as italics are not suitable for lengthy passages while italics based on Renaissance forms are beautiful, flowing, and easily readable, just like actual writing. Only since the 1940s have italics made a partial comeback as Lyrical Modernist faces such as Palatino, Dante, and Poppl-Pontifex have reinterpreted the style of the Renaissance and duplicated the forms and techniques (cut in steel and designed with a broadnib pen). Some faces even have attempted to turn the "italic as a secondary roman" theme around. For example, (Hermann) Zapf Chancery has a very slightly sloping italic for the "roman" and a 14° italic with swash caps for the italic. ITC Cerigo is another face that takes this path (but with a fully upright italic for the roman).

General Rules

Since some italics are simply not designed to be used as a regular typeface, don't use them that way! If you prefer the look of italics, make certain the italics look good as a body text (choose a Renaissance style) or you'll make the text harder to read. In this case, you should pick an appropriate set of caps; swash caps are appropriate so long as they aren't too flowery. Alternatively, a Renaissance roman uppercase with similar contrast might work.

It should almost go without saying, therefore, that you should ignore that I button in your word processor. Unless your word processor is smart enough to substitute fonts appropriately, you'll get a sheered roman which is even worse than an oblique - the axis will be incorrect as well as the width (and any number of other minor issues). Your kerning will be messed up and it just won't look right with letters squished together, running into each other.

Assuming you're using italics mixed with roman text, modern use of italics is fairly formal - italics are primarily a form of emphasis. Never use underlining. Underlining is what people used when they didn't have italics. Underlining told publishers to italicise the text. Underlining doesn't exist in typography. It doesn't matter what the APA or MLA handbook says, they are wrong in this case and generally are changing their position in recent versions.

The defined uses of italics are:

  1. Titles - Magazines, plays, musical pieces, movies, TV shows, art, speechs, poems. An exception is that religious texts (the Bible, the Koran, the Everything FAQ) are not italicised. They just aren't.
  2. Foreign words and phrases - Apparently they just have a je ne sais quoi that cries out for italics to increase their mystique.
  3. Names of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - Brand names are not italicised but actual names like Minnow, USS Nimitz, HMS Vanguard, Spirit of St. Louis, etc. Note that USS & HMS were not italicised. They aren't technically part of the name but are the item's title.
  4. Onomatopoeia
  5. General emphasis

    One important reminder: When using italics as above, do not place punctuation in italics unless it is part of the phrase. Therefore, "Did you read The Lord of the Rings?" is incorrect while "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? rocks!" is correct (even if completely false).

So you want to try...

As you may have inferred by this point, I like italics. Therefore, here are some attractive italic faces I suggest:

Thanks to Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.

After exclamation points and profanity, italics are the writer's third greatest enemy.

Like profanity, italics are most effective when used sparingly. From my point of view, italics should only be used to:

  1. place emphasis on a particular word or phrase, such as a foreign word or phrase;

  2. cite the name of a book, film, ship, television or radio program, or musical work (as in the name of a symphony or a specific album, such as Mahler's 1st, The Who's Tommy, Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, etc. ... see A Guide to Italics, Quotes, and Emphasis for many more examples);

  3. to insert a brief flashback - be it a sequence of events or a snippet of recalled conversation - within the body of the current narrative; and,

  4. to set apart the contents of a letter, excerpted lines from a poem, or a snippet of song lyrics (which could arguably be accomplished with the use of block quotes instead, making this last "rule" more of a stylistic choice on the part of the writer).

(Parenthetical pause here: when citing the name of a song or a story, quotation marks are what's required, as in: Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or Stephen King's "Sometimes They Come Back". The title of the album or collection in which the piece is included would be italicized, as in: Simon and Garnfunkel's Greatest Hits and Night Shift. The differences are subtle, and not necessarily as easy to discern as one might at first think.)

Remember the Dragnet-theme warning I suggested when it came to using exclamation points? (Quick recap: imagine that every time you use an exclamation point outside of dialogue, it comes accompanied by the first four notes of the Dragnet theme; you'll use them sparingly as a result.)

Well I've got a similar warning cue to employ when it comes to italics: imagine that whatever is italicized is being either whispered or Shouted Through A Bullhorn (however circumstances dictate); it's a matter of extremes, like it or not.

An italicized letter or quoted poem? A whisper.

A panicked warning (as in: "Look out!")? A shout through a bullhorn. (And bear in mind that when you combine italics with all caps -- "LOOK OUT!" -- it's overkill; the circumstances under which something like the above is italicized give the words or passage an immediacy that presenting them in all capital letters only diminishes; it's hitting the reader over the head with your intent: DEAR GOD, THIS IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT AND I'M GOING TO MAKE DAMN SURE YOU KNOW IT!. Overkill. Don't do that.)

There is another -- and less directly acknowledged -- reason that it's a good idea to use italics sparingly: like it or not, a prolonged passage of italics quickly tires the eyes while reading. It's that simple.

As a writer, whenever I come to a passage that I know is going to have to be italicized (such as a letter or brief flashback), I apply the same rule to my own work that I do to anything that I might choose to read: no more than 3 pages. That is all that my eyes can take as a reader, so I assume that's my readers' limits, as well. After 3 pages, it just gets annoying; and the last thing you want is for a reader to become more aware of how you're presenting something than of its content.

So: a whisper or shouted through a bullhorn, no more than 3 pages, and you just might find that italics can be a useful ally, rather than the enemy.

I*tal"ic (?), a. [L. Italicus: cf. F. italique. Cf. Italian.]


Relating to Italy or to its people.


Applied especially to a kind of type in which the letters do not stand upright, but slope toward the right; -- so called because dedicated to the States of Italy by the inventor, Aldus Manutius, about the year 1500.

Italic languages, the group or family of languages of ancient Italy. -- Italic order Arch., the composite order. See Composite. -- Italic school, a term given to the Pythagorean and Eleatic philosophers, from the country where their doctrines were first promulgated. -- Italic version. See Itala.


© Webster 1913.

I*tal"ic, n.; pl. Italics (). Print.

An Italic letter, character, or type (see Italic, a., 2.); -- often in the plural; as, the Italics are the author's. Italic letters are used to distinguish words for emphasis, importance, antithesis, etc. Also, collectively, Italic letters.


© Webster 1913.

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