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April 30, 2020

How Should We Format Non-English Words?

Collection of grammar books from various languages with text: English or Not: Our Options

Last month, we discussed if we should use italics for a character’s thoughts. As part of that post, we mentioned the risk of overdoing italics. Words are emphasized when in italics, so by italicizing too much, we end up emphasizing nothing.

A similar problem with italics can crop up when we include non-English words (including invented words) in our stories. Especially as authors and audiences have grown in diversity, many have advocated for the usual “rules” regarding how to format non-English words to be reexamined.

Let’s take a look at the existing standards for formatting non-English words, explore some of our options, and figure out when the usual guidelines might not work well for us. *smile*

The Usual Rules for Non-English Words

Most fiction writing in the U.S. follows The Chicago Manual of Style for grammar and formatting rules. But formatting non-English words has never been straightforward, even before recent shifts in attitude.

In general, the thinking was that writers should italicize non-English words…unless:

  • A word had become common enough to “cross over” to English usage, such as by having a definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  • A word is used frequently enough in the story that readers would “learn” the word, in which case, only the first instance needs to be italicized.
  • And several other sometimes-confusing rules about not italicizing proper nouns, long quotes, etc.

Basically, the idea was that if a word or phrase would be familiar to many readers—either through common American usage or frequent in-book usage—it should remain in normal font.

Why Are Italics the Default Format for Non-English Words?

When we discussed character internalization, the formatting guidelines depended on whether our character’s thoughts were indirect (not a direct quote) or direct (the character’s exact internal words):

  • For indirect internal dialogue, we might not need any special formatting (depending on our story’s point of view (POV)).
  • For direct internal dialogue, we use italics.

Why the difference? With direct, the words will be an exact quote, such as: I can’t believe this. Thus, the pronoun might change from he/she/they to I/we and the verb tense might change from past to present.

In other words, a big part of the reason to use italics for direct character internalizations is to let readers know that we meant to change pronouns and verb tenses. They aren’t a typo. *grin*

Similarly, that’s a big part of the reasoning behind italicizing non-English words. The formatting lets readers know that we meant what we typed and the unfamiliar word isn’t a typo.

But Should Non-English Words Be Emphasized?

Remember, however, that italicizing a word emphasizes it. Emphasizing a word just because it’s not an English word can create several problems, especially as the publishing and reading world—even in the U.S.—increasingly becomes diversified and multilingual.

For a growing number of multilingual English readers, following the CMoS rule to italicize ends up emphasizing the word for no reason, like adding a shout where there shouldn’t be one. Or worse, it just serves to point out that the term is “foreign” or “other” or “lesser.”

So-called “foreign” words are foreign to whom? I’m nowhere near a big name author, and even I’ve sold books in many non-English-speaking countries. As publishing becomes more global, centering an American-English perspective when it comes to designating “foreign” words makes less sense.

And with italics, emphasizing the words without a reason turns them into a parody for those already familiar with the terms.  Take it from this short, humorous video, where author Daniel José Older explains why he doesn’t italicize Spanish words in his stories:

What about Unfamiliar English Words?

As I mentioned above, the main reason for italicizing non-English words is to let readers know they’re not a typo. But there are many English words that readers might not be familiar with, yet we don’t italicize those.

Why do formatting rules apply differently to unfamiliar English vs. non-English words? Click To TweetJust recently, when reading a historical romance, I had to look up the word barouche. I knew from the context that it was some type of carriage, but I wanted to see an image so I could understand the drama of various characters essentially trying to call “dibs” to claim the passenger seat and have the best view of the countryside.

I italicized the word above to point it out, but it obviously wasn’t emphasized in the text. Readers are used to the idea of figuring out words from context or looking them up to add to their vocabulary.

Why are non-English words treated differently when readers can often follow a similar path to understanding? Especially with easy access to mobile dictionaries, readers could also try to figure out non-English words from context or a quick lookup.

Should the Guidelines Be Changed?

Obviously, if the style guide of our publisher insists on following the CMoS rules, we might not have a choice. But what if we’re self-published or have influence with our publisher?

There’s a growing perception that we should consider new guidelines along the lines of…

Don’t italicize non-English words if any of the below apply:

  • the author speaks the language and doesn’t want to emphasize the words
  • the POV character speaks the language well enough to not think anything unusual about the words
  • the targeted reader audience would be familiar with the words

For each of those situations above, italics might do more harm than good. Authors and readers often don’t want the language of their culture or background “othered” or turned into random shouts of emphasis.

For deep POV writing, if the character wouldn’t notice it, we shouldn’t mention it, so it can be out of POV for a character to emphasize normal-to-them words in their POV scenes. They’d never think of italicizing a word in their normal vocabulary unless they wanted to emphasize it.

In other words, if italicizing a non-English word would seem like random shouting to the author, reader, or characters involved, we might want to find another option.

What If Our Work Doesn’t Fall into One of Those Categories?

Even if our use of a non-English word doesn’t fall into one of those categories, we still want to think about what would help our reader. How can we best prevent taking readers out of our story?

We might ask ourselves, would our readers be surprised to find non-English words in the story? Or have we led them to somewhat expect it by the genre, story premise, our author brand, introducing a character known to be bilingual, etc.?

All these questions are to start a conversation, not to imply an edict one way or another. Depending on the situation, we might follow CMoS to be as clear as possible to our readers, or we might consider our other options, either to prevent the overuse of italics or to avoid othering any of our readers already familiar with the words.

What Are Some of Our Other Options?

Grammar and formatting rules exist simply to help us communicate with each other. So if we want to find other options, we should look at other ways of making our meaning clear:

  • To avoid the typo assumption without italicizing, we can include information that clues readers in to the word being non-English.
    “Bienvenue!” Her French accent trilled her exclamation.
  • To help non-speaker readers avoid looking up words, we can ensure the meaning will be clear to them through context, just as they would do with unfamiliar English words.
    “Bonjour! How are you today?”
  • Especially with whole sentences, we could provide an English translation in the narrative after the non-English sentence. (Some styles will italicize the translation, thus “othering” the English and not the non-English words, or use brackets or parentheses, which avoid italics, but add extra punctuation “bling” instead.)
    “Merci beaucoup.” Thank you very much.
  • For extensive use of non-English words, we can include a glossary of words readers should know. (This is common for invented words or languages in the fantasy or science fiction genres.)

POV Considerations

Of course, if our POV character understands the language, another option is to simply translate the words to English and tag them as being in another language:

  • “Welcome! How are you today?” The French words sang with her accent.

(I actually played with this idea in my novel Treasured Claim. As the Drakish language of dragons was usually just translated and tagged in the narration, the POV character (and readers) are surprised when another character doesn’t need a translation.)

The translation approach is especially effective if we’re able to use the non-English language’s cadence and/or syntax in our translation—without turning the character into a caricature. Other common ways to add non-English flavor are to avoid contractions or describe non-verbal communication aspects of the exchange.

If our POV character doesn’t understand the language, we can also just use narrative summary:

  • The women argued in French, gesturing wildly.

Note that narrative summary would be telling rather than showing, so we shouldn’t use this approach for any important or dramatic exchanges. However, when details aren’t needed (or aren’t supposed to be known by the POV character), this can be a good way to avoid distracting the reader with unimportant translation issues.

Additional Considerations

Most importantly, if we’re going to include non-English words, we need to ensure the words are correct and appropriate for the situation. We should never assume Google Translate will be enough, or those who speak the language will rightly roll their eyes at our poor grammar and word choice.

What are our options for formatting non-English words? Click To TweetIn addition, we should ask ourselves why we want to include the word, especially if we don’t speak the language. Some situations of our story do call for using non-English words, such as when a close translation doesn’t exist or to be true to the circumstances or characters.

But some speakers of the language might consider random sprinkling of non-English words by non-speaking authors as disrespectful, like the author is just pretending to be more authentic. So if we’re including the words more for a vague attempt at flavor than for specific reasons, we might be better off writing the English translation with an indication of the language spoken.

Also, although CMoS says to italicize only the first instance of a frequently occurring word, we might instead decide to italicize every instance for consistency’s sake. There’s not one right answer for any of these choices, so the important thing is to think through our decisions.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned above, even before all the recent discussions, publishers often varied on their rules for non-English words. Some would italicize, even if the word appeared in Merriam Webster and so on.

In other words, this situation has always been somewhat subjective, one of guidelines and personal styles rather than definitive “right” and “wrong” choices. That means whether we traditionally publish or self-publish, our editor (or audience) might not be on the same page with whatever we decide.

Communicating with our editor ahead of time about our internal “rules,” such as with a style sheet, can help prevent issues. And when it comes to our readers, our brand and the story’s genre, premise, and characters will all help to prepare them for whatever we decide.

Personally, I’ve followed CMoS most of the time so far in my writing, as many of the non-English words in my stories are invented and can’t be looked up on Google. *grin* But I’ll definitely be taking a closer look at my choices in the future.

Have you included non-English words in your writing? Did you follow CMoS style or not? If not, how did you make your choice of how to format the words? What choice do you think might make sense for you and your writing in the future? Do you have any insights to share?

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Elle Love
Elle Love

Hi Jami,
I started writing my middle grade fantasy novel using words I created in my world building. How did you know I was wondering whether or not to italicize my invented words? Your blogs are always timely, answering my questions before I ask them. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Stay well.
Elle

C.P. Rider

Great post! I’ve decided to remove the italics for Spanish words in my latest book. Eventually, I’ll go back and do the same for the first two in the series, too. This was something I truly agonized over because there are very good reasons for doing either one. I ended up on the non-italicized side for three reasons. One: I think readers are sharp enough to figure out when they’re reading non-English words without me pointing them out. Two: When I wanted to use italics for emphasis, I had to invert the italics for non-English words and it plain looks weird. Three: Spanglish is a big part of my regular speech. I’m not LatinX, but my husband, children, and most of my friends and family are. I was raised on the Mexican-American border. This is simply how I, and those around me, speak. (Note: I’m not Spanish fluent in any way. I have a native-Spanish speaker look over my MSs) Thanks again for the timely article.

Kassandra Lamb

Thank you for this, Jami. I need to be more cognizant of this. I tend to italicize automatically, because that was what I was taught in school eons ago. Time to loosen up on that.

Deborah Makarios

“the drama of various characters essentially trying to call “dibs” to claim the passenger seat and have the best view of the countryside” – Mansfield Park?

With Restoration Day I had a bilingual situation to deal with in places, which I ended up doing by using guillemets «like this» in place of quote marks to show when someone was speaking the less-common language. What I would have done if it hadn’t just been direct speech that was in Easterling, I don’t know!

Sadira Stone

I disagree with my publisher on this issue, but the subject came up after the contract was signed, so all the non-food Italian words are italicized, including every single incidence of “bella,” the hero’s pet name for the heroine. It gets tiresome, IMO. As a former language teacher (French, German), I enjoy inserting foreign terms for flavor where appropriate–checking with native speakers when needed. In future indie projects, I’ll drop the italics for foreign words and keep it for internal dialogue.

Roland R Clarke

My current WIP is the beginning of a series set in North Wales with a Welsh-speaking police detective. The novel/series is all 1st person deep POV, but I was putting the Welsh expressions in italics – at first. When I didn’t, readers thought ‘tad’ – the Welsh for father – was a typo. And as you correctly point out, ‘it can be out of POV for a character to emphasize normal-to-them words in their POV scenes’. Especially in deep POV. An added problem: the MC uses internal dialogue a lot – not in italics.

Recently, I’ve been writing scenes with sign-language – her sister is deaf as is a witness/victim in a case. I’m writing that in italics. I suspect that’s what needs to stay in italics, but nothing else.

What would you suggest? I’m at the re-write stage after beta-reader feedback – prior to letting the developmental editor tackle it.

Dawn

The video says it all. Love it.

I have foreign and/or made-up words in my novel. Not very many. Thankfully, it never occurred to me to italicize. But the way I chose to do it probably wasn’t the best either. I put a slash between the foreign and English like so, baka/fool. I only did this when I couldn’t think of a way to give the meaning of the word through context. Now I’m rethinking it. I already have a glossary. Perhaps the italicized English translation afterward or something else you’ve mentioned. Thanks for this! As always, your posts give me something to think about.

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