Archives For Pulpit

Emphasizing Italics

August 14, 2014 — 18 Comments

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.