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April 14, 2015

Using Italics for Technical (or Key) Terms

Timothy McAdooby Timothy McAdoo

(Note: Key terms are not the same as keywords, which appear under an abstract. For more about keywords, see my previous post.)

In creative writing, italics are commonly used to emphasize a particular word, simulating the emphasis you would give a word if you read the sentence aloud. You see that all the time, right? But the APA Publication Manual recommends using careful syntax, rather than italics, for emphasis.

However, the Manual (on p. 105) does recommend using italics for the “introduction of a new, technical, or key term or label," adding "(after a term has been used once, do not italicize it).” I give examples of each below.

New or Technical Terms

To determine whether you have a new or technical term, consider your audience. A term might be new or technical for one audience and not for another. As an illustration, let’s look at two different uses of the phrase conditioned taste aversion.

This phrase might be considered commonplace in behavioral neuroscience or biological psychology research and thus likely not italicized at the first use in journal articles within that field.

Example sentence: “Of course, conditioned taste aversion may be a factor when studying children with these benign illnesses.”

But, let’s say you are instead writing for a journal about childhood development. Because this audience has a different expertise, you may think they are less familiar with the concept of conditioned taste aversion. In that context, you might consider the phrase technical and italicize the first case in your paper.

Example sentence: “Of course even much later in life these children may avoid avocados simply because of conditioned taste aversion, associating them, consciously or unconsciously, with feelings of illness.”

Key termsKey Terms

(Note: Key terms are not the same as keywords, which appear under an abstract. For more about keywords, see my previous post.)

A key term italicized in an APA Style paper signals to readers that they should pay close attention. This might be because you are defining a word or phrase in a unique manner or simply because the term is key to the understanding of your paper. For example, I might italicize a term that will be used throughout the remainder of a paper about conditioning:

Example sentence: “Conditioned taste aversion is a concept not to be overlooked.”

That statement would very likely be followed by a definition and examples of the concept, but subsequent uses of the term would not be italicized.

APA does not maintain a list of technical or key terms—this is intentional. Only you, the author, can know, or reasonably surmise, whether a term is technical to your audience or key to your paper. Let’s look at one more example:

Let’s say you’re writing a paper about the psychological benefits of owning a cat. You might naturally use the term feline many times. Nonetheless, you probably won’t italicize its first use because, for most audiences, it’s a familiar word. Still, as a careful author, if you’ve used the word many times, it’s worth considering why. Let’s say you’ve discussed in great detail how you believe feline traits differ from similar traits of other household pets. In that case, you might consider the understanding of the word feline key to your paper, and you could italicize the first use and perhaps include a definition.

As you can tell, deciding whether you have key, new, or technical terms is subjective. Your paper may have none. Or, if you need to delineate multiple important concepts within a paper, you may have several.

Labels

I’ve saved the easiest category for last! Use italics for labels. The Manual gives this example: “box labeled empty.”

For these, you should italicize each time the word is used as a label.

Example sentence: "The box labeled empty was full. Boxes labeled empty should remain empty."

tl;dr

Use italics for the first case of a new or technical term, a key term, or a label. Don’t italicize the subsequent appearances of new or technical terms or key terms.

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