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Exotic or not? When to use italics for non-English words

Updated: Apr 22

This post discusses:

  • certain common situations when italics are used

  • the debate over when to use italics for non-English words in fiction

  • common reasons why cultural anthropologists italicise non-English words

Editing and language change

One of the most exciting things about working as an editor is observing language change firsthand. Language and society are closely linked.

And many of the changes that have taken place in recent years (including new style guide recommendations on the capitalisation of Black and white) relate to progressive social movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

One up and coming topic concerns when to use italics for non-English words in texts.

Consider these three sentences:

  1. The fortress museum was in situ.

  2. Just one more rakija, please.

  3. The Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung are foundations linked to German political parties.

One of these is correctly italicised according to the Chicago Manual of Style. Do you know which one?

The answer: (2). Common standards at present are:

  • No italics for proper nouns in other languages

  • No italics for words from other languages found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (US English) or the Oxford English dictionary (UK).

I’ve opted for the Chicago Manual of Style. Why? Because it is the most detailed and comprehensive style guide I know. But these points apply if you are considering when to use italics in many UK English styles too.

Is the use of italics changing?

Some members of the editorial community have critiqued the use of italics for non-English words in recent years. This is because using italics…

  1. Can be exoticising

  2. May distract the reader

  3. Can be more difficult for some people to read

If English is a mishmash of words from many languages, then why should editors treat certain words differently? Just because, for instance, they haven’t (yet) made it into the dictionary?

As a result, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading has updated its style guide to avoid use of italics for non-English words. Obviously, context is key. So, if there is room for confusion, then italics may help.

Is this a wise move? Is any consensus likely on this topic? Some insights from translation studies and anthropology will help us here.

When to use italics for non-English words: Exoticism and cultural transplantation

One of the constant challenges in translation is to gauge how far to move away from the original text (often called the source text). Too close and you end up with a clunky, literal translation with meanings unclear to readers in the new language. It can sound poetic, opaque, exotic.

Too far and you can end up changing the meaning and register, losing nuance and accuracy in the process. It may read nicely in the target language. However, the target-language reader will have lost fundamental aspects of the original in this ‘transplantation.’

Now, imagine you are writing a text for an audience that does not speak Spanish. Which sounds more exotic?

  1. This summer I’m going on a trip to España.

  2. This summer I’m going on a trip to Spain.

Probably the first one. Italics marks the word as different, separates it off from the rest of the text, and draws attention to its ‘special’ quality, as this YouTube video by Daniel José Older explains. This can lead to a less immersive experience that helps produce a hierarchy between English and other languages.

In contrast, not using italics may lead to cultural transplantation, involving the loss of meanings and nuances. This takes us on to definitions of culture – something too difficult to tackle in this blog post.

What about the debate over when to use italics in ethnographic texts?

Ethnographic texts are often full of expressions in italics. Does this mean they are exoticising?

Occasionally. But not necessarily. Cultural anthropologists often work between languages and cultural contexts. They have an interest in language and culture.

  1. You cannot always easily translate a concept and it is helpful to use words from other languages to teach the reader the multiple meanings and connotations attached to a term. Examples include veze in Serbian/Croatian and 关系 in Mandarin. Moving away from English, how would you translate concepts like “being soft on crime”? Certain phrases have a specific, culture-bound meaning that you cannot translate literally.

  2. Some anthropological texts have not been through multiple heavy rounds of editing. These ethnographic texts (psst, this includes some of my early journal articles!) are often written as reports caught between multiple contexts with more thought into the audience required. For these texts, it makes sense to codeswitch between multiple levels of dialect, idiolect, language etc. In these texts, the mix of words from multiple language varieties form part of a text’s scaffolding (much like the overuse of academic signposting) as the author works through their material and arguments.

  3. Certain anthropologists will include lots of italicised words and sentences in other languages. Why? To boost their claim to ethnographic authority (by signalling a ‘good enough’ command of another language).

  4. Some anthropologists may use certain words and phrases to create a sense of difference in a way that can be exoticising.

This list isn’t exhaustive – please drop me a line if you have some more insights.

Now, in Kristen Ghodsee’s book From Notes to Narrative, she discusses her copyeditor’s comment that she overuses Bulgarian phrases in her work, and that this is distracting and difficult to follow for readers who aren’t fluent in both languages. After some consideration, she took her copyeditor’s view.

Time for an exercise:

For the anthropologists among you, find a recent draft of a text you have written and figure out what each instance of italics is doing. There is good reason to keep words for (1) in italics (and (4) if that is your ideological inclination). Yet there are more subtle ways in which ethnographic authority can be constructed. Similarly, if your text contains a lot of scaffolding, then a later editorial process should refine it.

As for (1), there is an editorial argument for leaving these phrases unitalicized. Indeed, you may want the reader to pause and be distracted by the italicised phrase so that they think about it more deeply. (1) and (4) are possibly related.

For more on this topic see:

  • From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies That Everyone Can Read (by Kristen Ghodsee)


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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.

They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.

You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!

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