Whacky Italics

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I was recently scanning Tyler Cowen's book In Praise of Commercial Culture (which, if you haven't read it already, you should immediately after finishing this), particularly a section on television networks, and that got me thinking about the whole fiasco of proper citations.

The basic rule is that books, movies, television shows, albums, and so forth are generally italicized--The Political Writings of Samuel Johnson, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Arrested Development, Randy Newman's Faust, and so forth--whereas individual chapters, episodes, and songs--"Pamphilus on Condolence," "Dobbs," "Ready, Aim, Marry Me," "Bless the Children of the World," and so forth--should, of course, be in quotation marks.

Though maybe I shouldn't say "of course" because few people recognize this, and often the whole convention is disregarded and replaced with mere title-case capitalization--The Treasure of the Sierra Madre instead of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for example (and I'll ignore, for now, the questions of when to capitalize articles and prepositions).

The advantage of italics/quotation marks over title-cases is clarity; when you're referring to a sizable number of books, movies, television shows, albums, and so forth, it's easier to make a distinction between individual installments and the whole damn thing. Title-case capitalization makes it murky because you never know if the author's discussing, say a specific episode or a completely different work.

But it's not perfect, and the passage I mentioned earlier, the one dealing with networks, got me wondering whether they should be italicized, television shows should be put in quote marks, and particular episodes of that show should be indicated by some other mark of designation (anything but bold). It somewhat made sense because the italic/quotation mark convention is tiered: Subsets of something larger are distinguished differently from their parent work--"Ready, Aim, Marry Me" being a subset of the program Arrested Development--but isn't Arrested Development a subset of the FOX network's programming? And thus shouldn't FOX be italicized, Arrested Development be in quotation marks, and "Ready, Aim, Marry Me" be in some other kind of designation (assuming that italics indicate the first set, quotes the second, the other the third, and so forth [and, again, not bold])?

In the case of television, the job is kind of done for us since networks are usually referred to in capitals--FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC--but three of those are acronyms--National Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, American Broadcasting Company--to say nothing of cable networks such as Showtime, Cinemax, and so forth. And for that matter, what about sports organizations such as the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and so forth? If we're going to follow the accepted format, shouldn't those be italicized and thus sports teams such as The Detroit Pistons, The Detroit Lions, and The Detroit Red Wings be in quotation marks?

I have no idea and am willing to leave it as is, since people will know what is part of what with the accepted convention, but the editor daemon in me cries out for consistency, or at least demands an excuse for keeping things the way they are, one that's not simply "People will understand regardless."

So my excuse is that excessive citations are unnecessary and, indeed, confusing. If you can follow a general line of thought, a simple mention that Arrested Development was produced by FOX should be all that you need. Likewise, people have enough difficulty using the standard convention anyway, so why complicate it by adding successive tiers of citation? Lame reasons I admit, but you're more likely to distinguish specific installments of a television show or a book from the show or book itself than you are the show or book from its network or publisher, aren't you?

And, in case you're wondering, the image I originally intended to accompany this post was of a stereotypical Italian, but I think we can all agree that a saucy Italian talk-show host is far superior to that.


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