When to italicize foreign words and phrases

Every once in a while, it feels good to add a snooty foreign word or phrase to your writing. I mean, what would the writing world be without a little je ne sais quoi? However, there are rules about how to treat these words and phrases on first reference, and that’s what today’s post is about. (After all, teaching language and style rules is Grammar Party’s modus operandi.)

Section 7.49 of the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained.”

The question is: How do you know if a foreign word or phrase will be unfamiliar to readers? Chicago has an answer for that, too. According to section 7.52, the test to find out if a word or phrase is likely to be unfamiliar to readers is to see if it is listed in Merriam-Webster.

If the foreign word or phrase is listed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, don’t italicize it. If it’s not listed, italicize it.

Here’s a starter list of foreign words and phrases that don’t need italics (because they are listed in Merriam-Webster):

addendum entente
ad hoc ex officio
ad infinitum exposé
ad interim fait accompli
à la carte fete
à la mode habeas corpus
ante meridiem habitué
à pied hors d’oeuvre
a priori machismo
apropos maître d’hôtel
artiste mandamus
attaché mélange
avant-garde ménage
beau ideal nom de plume
belles lettres non sequitur
billet-doux papier-mâché
blasé per annum
bloc per capita
bona fide per contra
bourgeois per diem
cabaret précis
café prima facie
camouflage procès-verbal
canapé pro forma
carte blanche pro rata
chargé d’affaires protégé
cliché quasi
communiqué quondam
confrere realpolitik
coup recherché
coup d’état reveille
cul-de-sac résumé
de facto soiree
décolletage status quo
détente subpoena
dilettante têt-à-tête
distrait tour de force
doppelganger vice versa
dramatis personae visa
éclat vis-à-vis
en masse viva voce
en route

I hope you enjoyed our quasi têt-à-têt. Remember, if you’d like more Grammar Party musings throughout your day, you can follow me on twitter at @GrammarParty.

18 thoughts on “When to italicize foreign words and phrases

  1. What this rule is basically saying, then, is don’t italicize these words because they have effectively lost their foreignness by becoming de facto English words.


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  3. This is very helpful thanks. Bookmarked the page! Had trouble knowing how to deal with this seemingly arbitrary rule…


  4. Reblogged this on discoveringyourinnerscientist and commented:
    So…after you do research or finish out your evidence-based practice project, you have to disseminate your findings, right?  That means good writing skills are necessary.  I continue to learn every day and will share a few helpful resources from time to time. 

    I stumbled onto this today when I wondered whether or not to italicize coup d’état. Do you know?  I didn’t.

    The rule for whether or not to italicize many foreign words is whether or not they appear in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.


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