Let’s not get laissez-faire over this. There are rules! So, settle down with your café noir, if that’s your preference, and let’s discuss italics.
Look back at the opening paragraph. There are two foreign language terms in there: laissez-faire and café noir. Did you see how one is in italic but one isn’t. Why is that? Damn, that’s inconsistent I hear you cry!
Well, fear not. For while yes, it does look inconsistent there are conventions when it comes to this sort of stuff (yes – I said rules in the opening. That was a bad move, from now on, we’ll stick with conventions!).
You see, “laissez-faire” (letting things take their own course) has moved from the French language happily into the English language without the need for translation. It is generally expected that most people know the meaning of this phrase and so there is no need to italicise it.
“Café noir” on the other hand is not a phrase that is used, typically, in everyday English. Although its meaning is clear (black coffee – urgh), it is not a phrase that has been assimilated into the English language. Go to a high street coffee chain and ask for one, I bet you’ll get a raised eyebrow!
Look around for language and you will discover a whole host of words and phrases have made their way into English and have been happily adopted. “Rigor mortis” (for the crime writers), “haiku” (for poets) and “curriculum vitae” (for the out of pocket writer) are all words and phrases that sit just fine in English.
If you are en déshabille (useful for the upmarket erotica writer), having a nuit blanche (lucky you, maybe), or a member of the haute bourgeoisie, you’re going to need your italics. Why? Well, chances are that you may not have come across these terms or your readers might not be familiar with them.
(And, if you were wondering: In a state of undress, sleepless night and member of the upper-middle class.)
But as always, you need to take cum grano salis (a pinch of salt). If your readers are likely to be familiar with a term, en passant might be familiar to chess players, then it’s possibly best to not italicise.
As always, consistency is key. If you’ve italicised that phrase on page three, then you must, must do it again on page three hundred. One way of keeping consistent is to use a dictionary, like the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors that gives guidelines for which words need italicising and which can say roman.
English is lucky that it can borrow – or steal – phrases and words from other languages and it makes for a much richer text. You can describe things, have concepts explained or attitudes made in a few foreign words that would take English far more to explain.
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