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Which of these is correct when it comes to using foreign words in writing?

The man glanced up at me, nodded, and said, ‘buenos días.’

Or, the man glanced up at me, nodded, and said, ‘buenos días.’

A decade or so ago, this question wouldn’t have arisen. The first version is the established way of writing non-English words. But the world has changed, moved on.

There’s an argument, especially in the U.S.A, that non-English words shouldn’t be italicised. There are various reasons for this. One is that it’s inappropriate, italics are used for emphasis and, in real life, there’s no emphasis on a word just because it isn’t English. Another reason is that in a multi-lingual society, italicising non-English words isn’t relevant. It’s a way of suggesting English is the dominant language and all others are inferior. The act of doing so is akin to saying to the reader who speaks the ‘foreign’ language italicised ‘anyone who uses these words is different, so you are different.’ There’s a view this could make some readers feel excluded. I don’t go along with that; it’s more complicated than an ‘either-or’ situation.

Last weekend, I read an article in a UK newspaper where Scottish words were in italics, as were Gaelic words. It didn’t offend me. It didn’t make me feel inferior or excluded. It did make me feel different from most of the target readers. But then, I am. I lived in England for 17 years before moving abroad, and I’ve been back in England for just over a year. I’ve always been aware of being different from those around me. The second I open my mouth gives that away. But it goes far deeper than that. However, I see difference as something to be celebrated, so it’s not a problem. Who the hell wants homogony?

Guardian quote

Using foreign words in travel writing

The standard practice when writing for the media is that non-English words that haven’t entered common usage (so not words like a la carte, faux pas, bona fide etc.) should be italicised … but only the first time they’re used. This is applied across the board on both sides of the Atlantic. The Chicago Manual of Style advises it. the MHRA Style Guide advises it. The Guardian and Observer’s style guide advises it.

There’s a school of thought that this is done because articles are aimed at readers whose first language is English, so you can’t assume they are familiar with the ‘foreign’ words used. It highlights them as being different because the words are different from what the reader is used to.

Hemingway quote

Writing fiction

When it comes to using foreign words in fiction writing, the approach is and isn’t different. In non-fiction, when you’re commissioned to write an article for an English-speaking audience, it’s quite simple, you follow whatever the standard practice is.
In fiction, if you’re a native English speaker, then it’s probably safe to assume the target audience is also English speaking, so a similar approach to non-fiction seems suitable … except for a few factors.

Italicising a non-English word the first time it’s used only might look odd and inconsistent to readers.

Buenos días,’ said Miguel.
‘Buenos días,’ replied Maria.

If I read this, I’d be totally distracted why the first was italicised and the second wasn’t. Using this approach in fiction makes no sense to me.

If the person doing the talking is, say, Spanish, why would their native words be italicised and any English words they used not?

Buenos días,’ said Miguel. ‘I’m sorry, mi ingles is muy malo.’

To me, the answer is the text is still aimed at a reader who might not have a grasp of the foreign words being used, so it’s giving them the heads up. There’s also the danger they might think mi or muy were typos if they weren’t italicised.

‘Buenos días,’ said Miguel. ‘I’m sorry mi ingles is muy mal.’

NYT quote

If the author writing was Spanish but writing in English, wouldn’t it seem strange if they italicised Spanish words but not English?

A Dominican American writer who published a story in The New Yorker insisted his words in Spanish weren’t italicised even though the publication’s style guide advised they should be. The reason was the writer was bilingual and that was the way he wanted them to be written. They were the norm for him.

There’s one argument that when anyone switches from one language to another in real life, there’s no change in tone, so why italicise in writing?

Except I think there often is a change in both tone and rhythm when this happens. I watched Pedro Almodóvar on The Graham Norton Show recently and his uncertain English accent was very different from his confident natural Catalan one. I know when I switch from English into Spanish, the way I speak isn’t the same. I don’t have a Scottish accent in Spanish, partly because I mimicked the way people around me in the Canaries spoke, resulting in me being told off by a Basque friend for talking with a Canarian dialect.
‘If I went to Glasgow and tried to speak in a Scottish accent, how would people react?’ he asked. ‘Probably as if you were trying to take the piss,’ I replied.

Like many aspects of writing, there are no convenient, definitive answers to whether to italicise non-English words or not. There are people who fall into the ‘either or’ camp. But for many it depends on who is doing the writing and who they see their audience to be. Ultimately, if there’s an editor involved, they will have the final say anyway.

Spanish website

Interestingly, I recently read a Spanish article which had a smattering of English words in it … all italicised. It isn’t just an English language thing.

Confused? Welcome to the world of writing. It is a minefield … unless you pile in and bang away at the keyboard without researching the craft.

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Jack Montgomery

Jack is an author, travel writer, photographer, and a Slow Travel consultant who has been writing professionally for twenty years. Follow Jack on Facebook for information about his writing, travel tips, photographs, and tales of life in a tiny rural village in Somerset.

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Some of the items on this site won’t be to everyone’s liking, I get that. Basically this is my place, my wee studio to mess around in – experimenting with words and thoughts. I’ll be chuffed if you enjoy it, but if you don’t, c’est la vie. As a friend used to tell me “it would be a boring life if we all thought the same.”

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