Emphasizing Italics

italicsSermons do not make great books. Sorry, but that’s the opinion of this pastor who has to compel himself to read the sermons of preachers.

Yes, some of them sell decently (when the author has a national “pulpit”). But I suspect many copies of those books are purchased out of support of their broader ministry. I imagine most purchasers try to wade through a few of the homilies, but decide after a while they prefer listening to the sermon “preached.”

As a lifelong student of communication, I continue to be intrigued by the different ways in which aural and printed word can be used to communicate the good news. The subject promises to be a major part of my dissertation research.

Sermons are meant to be delivered orally. Transposing them to the page, without making various accommodations, is (in my personal opinion) a mistake.

C.S. Lewis apparently agreed with me on that—before he came to disagree with the effort.

Ever since the rise of the keyboard, I have celebrated the ability to use italics for emphasis. I consider the availability of italics especially important when we translate spoken messages into text.

C.S. Lewis discussed this process in his preface to Mere Christianity. His focus was on how best to transpose words prepared for oral delivery to a written medium, while still maintaining their original voice.

The contents of this book were first given on the air, and then published in three separate parts as Broadcast Talks (1942), Christian Behaviour (1943) and Beyond Personality (1944).

In the printed versions I made a few additions to what I had said at the microphone, but otherwise left the text much as it had been. A “talk” on the radio should, I think, be as like real talk as possible, and should not sound like an essay being read aloud. In my talks I had therefore used all the contractions and colloquialisms I ordinarily use in conversation.

In the printed version I reproduced this, putting don’t and we’ve for do not and we have. And wherever, in the talks, I had made the importance of a word clear by the emphasis of my voice, I printed it in italics.

I am now inclined to think that this was a mistake—an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking and the art of writing.

A talker ought to use variations of voice for emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them.

In this edition I have expanded the contractions and replaced most of the italics by a recasting of the sentences in which they occurred: but without altering, I hope, the “popular” or “familiar” tone which I had all along intended. I have also added and deleted where I thought I understood any part of my subject better now than ten years ago or where I knew that the original version had been misunderstood by others.

When one’s mentor advises something, it demands thoughtful consideration. Lewis’ opinion that the use of italics for emphasis is not ideal forced me to seriously consider the practice, which I obviously favor.

I agree with Lewis on expanding contractions. I learned that lesson when I wrote a paper during seminary studies and the professor instructed me to make that change.

However, I disagree about the use of italics. They need to be properly applied, of course. And I recognize that the most gifted of writers may be able to consistently avoid using them. (Or “leaning on them” as an anti-italics anarchist would probably say.)

In the end, I guess it is time to ponder again Lewis’ pronouncement that writers have their “own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them.”

Until I receive a divine mandate, C.S. Lewis notwithstanding, you should continue to expect to occasionally see italics here at Mere Inkling.


The cartoon at the top of the page comes from an interesting site. You can find the original source for the image here. Just for the record, I hate ALL CAPS, and I absolutely despise underlining.

18 thoughts on “Emphasizing Italics

  1. Some of this depends on the audience, don’t you think? On the blog-o-sphere certain flexibility with written language is allowed, where in an academic paper it would be frowned upon. Also, it takes guts to disagree with your mentor!

    1. You’re absolutely right about the context determining the propriety. When writing dialog for a novel, it sounds uber-formal and stilted not to use contractions. However, a few people really do speak that way.

      As for your second point. With Lewis, it’s a rare occurrence.

  2. “I hate ALL CAPS” – Yet another reason for you not to bother with the Harry Potter books! Just flipping through them, you can’t help but notice how much Rowling relies on them in her dialogues. I wonder if many current children’s book writers do the same.

    As for sermons, I agree with you wholeheartedly. They are meant to be heard, but if the option’s not available, I’ll settle for the written copy, esp. of John Calvin’s expository sermons.

    1. You’re certainly right about the value of historic sermons, and I’m glad they have been preserved… for a variety of reasons. It certainly would have been nice though, wouldn’t it, to have heard them being preached?

  3. I’m reminded of the Gettysburg Address, or as Lincoln was told his by friend and bodyguard, Ward Lamon, that “a flat failure.” Or, in a more flattering but realistic light, by Gabor Boritt, the remarks “may have appeared as poetry, to be enjoyed or ignored; not analyzed.”

    Now we live in a world where the Civil War and all wars are bracketed by the speech. Times change. people’s appreciation’s change. One day it’ll be out of style. One day it’ll be in.

      1. Thanks, but I prefer anonymity in history’s view… and just want to leave a strong legacy of faith for my children, grand-children and whatever generations follow before the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

  4. Ever been to a black (African-American) church service and heard a preacher get really fired up? The brother can take 10 minutes to get through a paragraph worth of text. Totally different in person than could ever wind up in print.

    1. Many times, especially while I was serving on active duty. You’re right. I worked with one COGIC chaplain who would enter the pulpit with 2 or 3 words written on a piece of paper. It was his entire outline, and he would easily preach 30-45 minutes.

  5. Pingback: The Body of Christ « January's Dream

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