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March 25, 2017
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she tackles italics, capitalization, and exclamation points.

Dear Editor:

I’d like to have definitive word on the use of italics in novels, the use of caps (if at all), and the use of exclamation points.
—Edita A. Petrick

My friend Jennifer had a 10th-grade English teacher who told his students that, in his class, they were allowed to use an exclamation point exactly once a year. She’s never forgotten that and has used very few since.

Exclamation points can be used in place of a period to add emphasis or emotion to a sentence, or to capture the reader’s attention. The problem is that because they are so easily overused, they often lose their impact. Less is more here. Use them sparingly. Once a year might just do the trick!

Italics are usually used to emphasize words in a sentence, to set off non-English words or phrases, to indicate words that are thought but not spoken by a character, or for the titles of books, magazines, newspapers, films, works of art, plays, operas, CDs, ships, space vehicles, and book-length poems (The Iliad). You can use initial caps for short stories, book chapters, songs, short poems, and journal and magazine articles. But don’t panic. Style guides differ, and it is also acceptable to use italics or quotation marks for any of the above titles.

Capitalization rules are complex, but always capitalize the first words of sentences, proper nouns, and proper adjectives (a Homeric battle). You can even put a word or sentence in ALL CAPS to suggest shouting, but, as with the exclamation point, use this sparingly.

If you have a question for the editor, email Betty Sargent.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder of BookWorks.

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