Italicize Italian, look fancy

Have you ever heard someone speaking in another language and just had a gut feeling that they were using poor grammar?

I’m kidding, of course. I was, however, lucky enough to sample a veritable buffet of international languages recently while visiting San Francisco. In honor of my trip to the Bay City, I thought I’d talk this week about how to properly include a bit of foreign flair in your writing.

Now, when you’re speaking and you want to throw in a foreign word, you just need to make sure you pronounce it correctly – or that no one nearby will know if you don’t. In writing, however, we have to worry about the presentation. Readers can easily become frustrated with words they don’t recognize unless we do something to let them know that we’ve dipped into our exotic lexicon. The way that we do that is with italics.

One of my favorite passages from Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” involves a lively debate between Huck and his runaway slave companion Jim over the phrase “Parlezvous françaisLiterally translated, it means, “Do you speak French?” While that’s neither here nor there, I thought I’d include it for the good of the order.

What is important is that, before Huck offers Jim his condescending explanation of the phrase, it is presented in italics. This lets the reader know we’re not in Kansas anymore, so to speak. The rule holds true for words from all languages. Common international loans into our lexicon include words like magna cum laude for exceptional college graduates, habeas corpus, which requires sufficient cause for the government to lock you, and one of Pepé Le Pew’s favorites, je ne sais quoi, or “I don’t know what.” The latter phrase is typically used to describe something indescribable. No wonder we need to dip into French.

For certain words which have become very common in everyday usage, it’s alright to forgo the italics. While what constitutes “very common” is subjective, my list would include phrases like prima donna, faux pas, status quo and pro bono. This can be setting-specific, too: If you’re a law student, for example, there’s probably no need to italicize Latin words like de jure and a posteriori; and a musician would be pretty comfortable with non-italicized Italian phrases like andante, accelerando and da capo. As with all good writing, the key is to consider your audience. If they are unlikely to see the phrase on a regular basis, hit that italics key (Interestingly, Microsoft Word seems to do this for you on some common, non-English phrases). As an added bonus, throwing in italicized words now and then makes you seem fancy.