Including Definitions In Essays Do You Italize

Italicizing Foreign Words

By Maeve Maddox

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

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10 Responses to “Italicizing Foreign Words”

  • Donna

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

  • 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.

  • Allison

    @ Rebecca and niranjana-use footnotes

  • niranjana

    how should i explain d meaning of a italicized paragraph?

  • Rebecca

    Where do I explain what the foreign word means?

  • 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.

  • lovkesh

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

  • Karin-Marijke

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

  • 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.

  • Dave

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


by Timothy McAdoo

(Note: Key terms are not the same as keywords, which appear under an abstract. For more about keywords, see my previous post.)

In creative writing, italics are commonly used to emphasize a particular word, simulating the emphasis you would give a word if you read the sentence aloud. You see that all the time, right? But the APA Publication Manual recommends using careful syntax, rather than italics, for emphasis.

However, the Manual (on p. 105) does recommend using italics for the “introduction of a new, technical, or key term or label," adding "(after a term has been used once, do not italicize it).” I give examples of each below.

New or Technical Terms

To determine whether you have a new or technical term, consider your audience. A term might be new or technical for one audience and not for another. As an illustration, let’s look at two different uses of the phrase conditioned taste aversion.

This phrase might be considered commonplace in behavioral neuroscience or biological psychology research and thus likely not italicized at the first use in journal articles within that field.

Example sentence: “Of course, conditioned taste aversion may be a factor when studying children with these benign illnesses.”

But, let’s say you are instead writing for a journal about childhood development. Because this audience has a different expertise, you may think they are less familiar with the concept of conditioned taste aversion. In that context, you might consider the phrase technical and italicize the first case in your paper.

Example sentence: “Of course even much later in life these children may avoid avocados simply because of conditioned taste aversion, associating them, consciously or unconsciously, with feelings of illness.”

Key Terms

(Note: Key terms are not the same as keywords, which appear under an abstract. For more about keywords, see my previous post.)

A key term italicized in an APA Style paper signals to readers that they should pay close attention. This might be because you are defining a word or phrase in a unique manner or simply because the term is key to the understanding of your paper. For example, I might italicize a term that will be used throughout the remainder of a paper about conditioning:

Example sentence: “Conditioned taste aversion is a concept not to be overlooked.”

That statement would very likely be followed by a definition and examples of the concept, but subsequent uses of the term would not be italicized.

APA does not maintain a list of technical or key terms—this is intentional. Only you, the author, can know, or reasonably surmise, whether a term is technical to your audience or key to your paper. Let’s look at one more example:

Let’s say you’re writing a paper about the psychological benefits of owning a cat. You might naturally use the term feline many times. Nonetheless, you probably won’t italicize its first use because, for most audiences, it’s a familiar word. Still, as a careful author, if you’ve used the word many times, it’s worth considering why. Let’s say you’ve discussed in great detail how you believe feline traits differ from similar traits of other household pets. In that case, you might consider the understanding of the word feline key to your paper, and you could italicize the first use and perhaps include a definition.

As you can tell, deciding whether you have key, new, or technical terms is subjective. Your paper may have none. Or, if you need to delineate multiple important concepts within a paper, you may have several.


I’ve saved the easiest category for last! Use italics for labels. The Manual gives this example: “box labeled empty.”

For these, you should italicize each time the word is used as a label.

Example sentence: "The box labeled empty was full. Boxes labeled empty should remain empty."


Use italics for the first case of a new or technical term, a key term, or a label. Don’t italicize the subsequent appearances of new or technical terms or key terms.

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