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Matt Hart on Using Titles

How Should I Use Titles in Critical Essays?

by Matt Hart


There are important rules for the proper use of titles of literary and critical works. The style and format in which you render a title tells the reader what sort of work you are referring to, and demonstrates due care towards accepted academic conventions. Use the following guide when writing your research papers.


  1. Underlining and Italics:

    In the days before wordprocessing and true-type fonts, the accepted convention for highlighting titles was to underline the relevant words. These underlinings would usually be converted by the printer or typesetter into italicized text. Because of this technological history, it is now acceptable to use either underlining or italics for book titles. However, certain rules still apply to this process:


    • Be Consistent: Use either italics or underlining. Do not use both in the same paper. Use the same conventions in your main paper, footnotes and bibliography.


    • Be Selective: Only certain types of texts should be underlined or italicized. These include: novels, other book-length prose works, journal and newspaper titles, plays, and epic poems (ie., Milton's Paradise Lost should be italicized but NOT Tony Lopez's "Stress Management"). Thus, we can tell at a glance that The Acid House refers to the book of that name and not to the story which shares that title.


  2. Titles in Quotation Marks:

    Titles which are not of book-length, or are part of a larger collection of smaller works, should be inserted between double quotation marks. This is the proper procedure for citing the titles of the following sorts of texts: poems, short stories, critical articles, chapter titles, newspaper reports, encyclopedia entries, and other short prose works. The following example should help clarify this:

    James Saynor's review, "Mirror Shades," appeared in the March 1995 issue of New Statesman and Society. Saynor reads The Black Album as a re-writing of the controversial "Jahilia" episode from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.


    In this example we can immediately distinguish between the titles of novels and magazines and those of shorter works--a book review and a chapter from a novel, respectively.