Saturday, June 14, 2008

some thoughts on quotation marks and italics

+updated 6/19/08+

I wrote this for another context, but I haven't posted in a while, so I thought I'd bore the world rather than just my colleagues.

As you may know, my day job is as an editor for a university. In this position I work for a bunch of academics, and over the last five years I’ve developed the bias that many academics are not great writers.

This is compounded by a few factors.

First, the overarching goal of most academic writing is not the creation of good writing, it’s the generation of new ideas, or if I’m a bit less generous, the goal is to sound smart and innovative. Thus, academic writing is by its very nature flush with field-specific terminology and verbosity.

Second, because academics are bright and successful within their field, many seem to naturally assume that they are also good writers. Actually, this is probably true of non-academics also, but in my department, I’ve found that it takes a long time for the higher level faculty to seek editorial assistance. But they all need help, and once I find my way to their manuscripts, they hardly ever bat an eye if I swap some quotation marks for italics or make a few nouns roman type (I suppose they’re usually too busy!).

Likewise, I think the academics that write for nonprofit theology journals could use some help, and I doubt they’ll really care if lowly journal editors assert their will on matters of emphasis. But if they do care, such editors have the big guns in their arsenal: (1) they’re using CMOS, the king of style since the early 1900s—it happens to be the stylebook of most book publishers, the stylebook of most scholarly work in the humanities—and as far as writing style is concerned, CMOS is like the US constitution, and the journal editors are the Supreme Court; (2) they’re attempting to keep all of our articles consistent, so an author could be consoled that there’s nothing wrong with their style, they’d just like it to match the rest of the issue’s content; (3) they’re attempting to make their content relevant to a larger audience than just other theologians; (4) they’re an interdisciplinary journal with a creative writing section, so unlike other theology journals, great writing will never take a backseat to great theology; and (5) even if the author is a big name that they just have to publish, they are still the one’s pulling the strings, so authors are really beholden to their editorial decisions.

My perspective is that academics, especially in the humanities, attempt to compensate for their lack of writing genius by using artificial means of emphasis like the quotation mark. In most instances, a word can be emphasized naturally in the sentence or paragraph construction without stooping to quotation marks or italics. Moreover, by making sparse use of this convention, words that are set off by italics will stand out more. Also, many writers seem to use (or overuse) quotation marks for ironic use (see CMOS 7.58) when it really doesn’t make much sense.

So given that it’s generally best to trim a manuscript of excess italics and quotation marks, here are the guidelines that I'd recommend for a theology journal:

  • Foreign words unfamiliar to readership = italics
  • Emphasis (try to avoid) = italics
  • Terms, words used as words, letters used as letters = italics
  • Nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense (try to avoid!) = quotation marks

Of course, ultimately, the author is always right. Editors can usually get away with enforcing matters of style, but if there’s an impasse, an editor's only options are to give in or reject the piece.