Wednesday 8 June 2016

The plague of italics: its causes, history, and remedy

 For a long time I have kept silent on this topic. But the word is like fire in my bones. I cannot be silent, I must speak. Too much is at stake. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good bloggers to do nothing. My friends, there is a great evil at large in the world, and today I must raise my voice against it.

I refer to the use of italics in theological prose.

Now the italic was once man’s friend. It provided writers and their readers with a humble, homely service. You could use italics (1) for the title of a book or film (Gone with the Wind), or (2) for foreign words (mieux vaut prévenir que guérir), or (3) for algebraic expressions (n + 1), or (4) to show that a word is being used self-consciously as a word (“George Herbert uses the word stand to mean indecision”). Beyond those four uses, the italic had only one further legitimate use, and that was (5) to add emphasis to a word in special cases where a sentence would be unintelligible or confusing without it. This last use of italics is harder to define but easy to illustrate (“I only said I might murder you”; “the question is whether I’m in love with you”).

Now hear me, all you writers of the world! Hear me, you publishers and editors! Hear me O students and teachers! Beyond the five uses that I have just mentioned, there is no occasion for adding italics to your sentences.

No. Occasion.

If you would like to emphasise a certain word in your sentence, then you should construct the sentence in such a way that the emphasis falls where you want it to fall. That is why the Lord has given us the power to make sentences, so that we can get our point across with all the emphasis and precision that our hearts desire. But we have not been given this wonderful gift for the purpose of controlling our readers, or subjugating them, or micromanaging their responses, or shouting in their inner ear, or giving them migraines by constantly making their eyes shift between good Christian erect letters and lazy unrighteous slouching ones.

The overuse of italics has, today, reached plague proportions. Writers sprinkle their sentences with italics merely because they would like you to notice these particular words. But if I am reading the sentence, how could I fail to notice those particular words? Why, author, do you need to give me such emphatic and overbearing guidance? I am already reading your sentence; I am already committed to it; I am already willing to hear what you have to say.

Now I wish it were as easy as condemning the secular authors and praising the theologians for their chaste and lucid speech. But in this matter the children of the world are wiser than the children of light. Nowhere is the spread of italics more pervasive than in Christian theology. Nowhere else does one find such supercilious pedantry mixed with such despotic typographical authoritarianism. Nowhere else are authors so concerned to manage and control, word by italicised word, the reader’s responses to whatever is being said.

How did this plague of italics enter our sacred discourse? Those who like to claim that All Bad Things come from America will find no comfort here. For this infection has come, I am sorry to say, from the very heartland of our language, from Mother England herself.

I do not have time to write the full history here, so let me give it to you in brief. The virus was created in the theological laboratories of Great Britain’s most prestigious universities. The spread of the italic can be traced back to 1960s Oxford and Cambridge, and specifically to a generation of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theologians influenced by Wittgenstein. The trouble began when these scholars started to cultivate an Anglicised imitation of Wittgenstein’s rather barbed, emphatic, italicised prose style.

If you have ever read a bit of Wittgenstein, you will know that an uncommonly extensive use of italics is one of the hallmarks of his German prose style. I have no objection to this since Wittgenstein was a genius; he was smarter than the rest of us put together; he changed the history of philosophy. If your ideas are as unique as Wittgenstein’s then please, by all means, go ahead and express them in a unique style. The problem is when the rest of us, mere mortals that we are, turn somebody else’s unique style into a meaningless affectation. It is bad for the language and, to that extent, bad for the soul.

In a thorough study of Wittgenstein’s use of italics, Gordon Baker observes its corrupting influence on later authors:
“Italics in [Wittgenstein’s] writings might be treated as the written counterpart of a well-known feature of his speech: he had the habit of putting very considerable stress on particular words or phrases. This mannerism proved infectious with some of his disciples. It has given much leverage for caricature and mockery (of him and them); as if a random exaggerated stress on such words as ‘this’ or ‘that’ might suffice by itself to create an aura of profundity” (Gordon Baker, “Italics in Wittgenstein,” in Wittgenstein’s Method, 225).
By a monstrous irony of history, some of the 1960s Wittgensteinian theologians banded together to form a Catholic Marxist group known as Slant. They had a journal by the same name. It had a lot of italics.

Now I won’t name names. And I happen to think that this particular circle of British Wittgensteinians produced some of the most worthwhile theology of the past fifty years. But their influence on the language of our discipline has been less than satisfactory. Their italicised affectation spread to their students and their students’ students, until eventually everyone was doing it – it’s all very biblical.

Let me show you some photographic evidence. These examples are chosen at random from theological books. They come from books on my own shelves, from authors I love and admire. (Love the sinner, hate the sin.) Let the reader decide if I am exaggerating the scale of the problem! Let the writer search his heart, and perhaps his books, in case I have used one as an example! Let publishers and editors beat their breasts – or, if that sounds too kinky, at least let them hang their heads!
Let us put a stop to all this, here and now! Let us make a vow, each one of us, never to italicise a word for emphasis unless the sentence would not make sense without it. Above all, let us agree never to italicise the words it is not true at the beginning of a sentence. No good will come of it!

If we don’t stop now, before long writers will start using bold-face to emphasise random bits of their text. Oh wait.


Anonymous said...


Whatsupnow? said...

Get over it or we will use SMS language instead. Lol c u l8r tmoz

Jones said...

Amen brother! (Shame.. I can't use italics here for some bad-taste irony.)

Anonymous said...


“I have sinned against the Lord.”


Anonymous said...

Language is usage

Auriel Ragmon said...

I vow to thee my language
to not peruse italics
and to peruse the cursive
when I write instead.
Bad me, to the tune of I vow to thee, My Country...

Nastily yours,
Jim of Olym


Consider me chastised.

[Hangs head. Exits stage left]

Anonymous said...

Try reading Abraham Kuyper if you want to see serious italics abuse.

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