Italic was originally a separate style of writing — not a complement to roman type, but a different and completely equal style of writing that originated in the papal chancery and other centers of official manuscript production in Renaissance Italy. The first important italic types were created for Aldus Manutius, the innovative printer, publisher, and entrepreneur whose business flourished in Venice around the year 1500. Aldus used these types to produce pocket-sized editions of the classics. Italian humanist scholars were accustomed to reading this style of writing; it was what most of them wrote themselves, at least in formal manuscripts and correspondence. At that point, the initial capital letters in Aldus’s books were simply roman small caps, and the rest was “italic” type (it didn’t yet have a name).
This all changed remarkably quickly. Only a few decades later, when type foundries and printing had developed in leaps and bounds, someone got the bright idea of using italic and roman type on the same page, to distinguish one kind of text from another. At first, there was no thought of mixing them in the same line — nobody had yet standardized the sizes of type, so the two styles of type would not have aligned properly with each other (Figure 1). Instead, they were each used in separate blocks of text; for instance, roman for the main text and italic for notes or a translation. Blackletter was also mixed frequently on these polyglot pages.
By the middle of the 16th century, in France, italic type was used together with roman type in the same block of text, more or less the way we use it today.
Giving Type a Voice
Today, we think of italics as a style of type, rather than as a separate kind of typeface. We use it to set something off from the rest of the sentence or paragraph, to give it emphasis (“I will not go with you!”), and for a number of defined purposes, usually secondary in some way to the main text. Italic is one of the tools, along with space, punctuation, and capital letters, that we use to modulate our written speech.
The fact that italic is usually slanted and more cursive in form than the upright formality of ordinary roman type gives it some of its penchant for emphasis; it has a sort of forward thrust, because of its slant. Yet the slant isn’t intrinsically a characteristic of italic; the important distinction is its cursive, handwritten style, including simpler forms of certain letters (a, g) and a greater emphasis on curves (Figure 2). There are italic types that have very little slant at all; there are also “oblique romans” that have nothing but their slanted angles to distinguish them from roman type.
Are Italics Readable?
Today we think of italic as inherently less easy to read than roman type. This is partly because we’re used to reading italic in subsidiary roles, not in long passages. As type designer Zuzana Licko says, “We read best what we read most.” (That’s not the only factor in readability, but it’s a powerful influence.) But it’s also because so many of the most common italics are based on 19th-century styles that tend to be rounded, ornate, and somewhat decorative. They were never designed to be read in long passages of text, so naturally they’re not well adapted to it. The most readable italics are the old-style, calligraphic italics based on 16th-century humanist handwriting (Figure 3). This calligraphic style may not look much like our ordinary handwriting today, but it’s a style that’s been revived many times and is easily recognizable, as well as elegant and attractive, so it serves its purpose well. Even if we can’t write it, we can read it.
First, make sure that the type family you’re using includes an italic, and that the italic is installed on your system. If you specify italic without having an italic font installed, you’ll get only a slanted version of the roman, which looks (and is) amateurish. Every variation within a type family — italic, bold, condensed, extended semibold italic, whatever — is a separate font. Having one of them does not guarantee that you have all the rest. Just because an “italic” style shows up on your font menu (especially in Windows) doesn’t mean that an italic font is installed on your system.
Some typefaces were never designed to have an italic complement (Figure 4). There are no italic blackletter typefaces, for instance (unless someone has deliberately designed one just to be perverse).
Italic vs. Oblique
A number of sans serif typefaces were designed to have an “oblique” rather than an italic. Helvetica, for instance, has an oblique rather than an italic. This means that there’s little or no stylistic difference between roman and its oblique complementary font; the only distinction is that one is upright, the other slanted. This might be a nice subtle distinction if you just need to italicize a lot of names of books or magazines or television series, but most of the time we want the italics to stand out more (Figure 5).
More recently, designers have created a lot of humanist sans serif typefaces; their letterforms are based on the forms of traditional serif text faces, rather than on industrial ideals of machine-like function. Their “roman” forms are often much more easily readable than other styles of sans serifs, and they usually include a true italic, based to a greater or lesser degree on Renaissance italic calligraphy. Lucida Sans was one of the first sans serif typefaces to do this, in the early days of digital typesetting. (Gill Sans predates Lucida by several decades, but its italic is quirky and only partly humanist in form.) Today, Lucida Sans has a host of sisters and brothers, including ITC Stone Sans, FF Meta, FF Profile, Thesis Sans (“TheSans”), FF Scala Sans, FF Quadraat Sans, Bliss, and Myriad. All of these typeface families have italics that stand out from the roman and also work well on their own, in longer blocks of italic text.
What happens when you’re using an italic font for a passage of text and you run into something that would ordinarily be italicized, such as a book title? The common practice is to reverse the process: instead of italicizing that title, set it in roman, since the rest of the text is italic. But that can look clunky, depending on the typeface. If the bit that needs to be set apart visually isn’t long, I instead use small caps (without initial full caps). This too depends on the typeface, but it often works surprisingly well (Figure 6).
This technique won’t always work; sometimes there’s too much material, or you’ve used small caps for another purpose and they would look confusing here. It’s worth a try, though.
How about italic punctuation? That is, when an italic word or phrase is followed immediately by, say, a colon or a comma, should the punctuation be italic, too (Figure 7)? There’s a long tradition of continuing the italic, but it has more to do with making it easy on the typesetter than with logic. If the punctuation is a question mark or an exclamation point, I usually find that it naturally seems to be part of the italicized word or phrase, so I set it in italic too. But not necessarily; it depends on the sense of the words. What is important is to check the spacing and make sure that a slanted italic letter (or exclamation point) doesn’t bump into what follows it, such as closing quotation marks. (But then, all typesetting requires paying attention to the way the characters fit together. It doesn’t happen automatically, no matter how good your software may be.)
When producing books, I often import a Word file or other word-processed manuscript into a page-layout program (in my case, InDesign). All too often, the author has applied lots of formatting (font, size, leading, indents) directly to the text, rather than defining it in paragraph styles and letting the styles handle the formatting. Since I use paragraph and character styles in InDesign to do almost all the formatting of a long book, I have to delete the local formatting first; otherwise, it gets confusing and the type looks inconsistent.
But there’s one element of local formatting I don’t want to lose: the italics. I need to know that, for instance, the Latin name of a prehistoric plant should be italicized; or the title of a book; or three words in a paragraph of quoted speech. If I strip out the local formatting, I’ll also lose those italics; they’ll have to be re-inserted during the proofing and corrections stage.
To avoid this, I’ve suggested that people preparing books manuscripts create a character-level style called “italic” (or whatever they want to call it; it could also be “emphasis,” for example) and apply that style to every word or letter that’s supposed to be in italics. That way, I can strip out the local formatting and still know which words are supposed to be italicized in the final book.
This is such a common problem that I wish InDesign had an import filter that would strip out everything except the italics. Of course, that would only work if the author had applied “italic” as a formatting option, not chosen a specific italic font directly. It’s best to persuade your writers to create a character style in Word and apply it consistently; that gives you more flexibility in both the word processor and the page-design program.
As an editor or writer, use italics consistently, and if possible, apply a character style to them before turning them over to a designer or a production typesetter. As a designer, when you’re choosing a typeface, keep in mind what the italic looks like, and how it fits the way you intend to use it. Don’t just choose a typeface based on its roman, if you’re going to be setting a lot of italic; look at both fonts, and at how they work together. Choose an italic that’s readable, not just fancy. And before you print a document with italics, make sure that the italic font you’ve chosen exists and is installed on your system.