The othering that italic type makes

by Abu Jar M Akkas | Published at 12:05am on July 01, 2018

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— ignitedinkwriting.com

HOUSE style is essential for publishing houses, whether they produce books or newspapers, print or online. Sets of guidelines on rules of usage in typography, punctuation, etc, when adhered to by all working in a publishing house, give a sense of uniformity across texts and across works. The use of honorifics before names, the format of dates, the use of roman, which is non-italic, type and the use of words and phrases in italic type often leave people confused, logically and illogically.
New Age has its style book, which contains such rules and some more on what words to use and how to use many of them, since August 2004, a year after the newspaper started coming out. Yet it has always been difficult to make people conform to the rules, because of varying limitation of individuals working on the reporting and the editing desk.
In about 11 years that I have worked on the New Age editing desk, occasionally writing more for supplements that special occasions have whipped up and less for regular news pages, I have never allowed myself to use and have always convinced other writers and editors to not use text in italic type in news reports, even when text contains names of books, which are generally put in italic type in other spheres of publication.
There is a practical reason for that. It becomes difficult for people, who are hard pressed for time, working on the desk, which mostly remains short-handed, to ensure that the text italic remains italicised in print. They need to go to the production section or send in for whites, as page proofs printed on white sheets of A3 papers are known in news rooms, and may need to mark the texts out for the production people to put them in italic type. Beforehand, they need to remember which the copies are that warrant such attention.
Although later-day production software saved the people on the desk this hassle as the desktop publishing programs have become intelligent enough to retain the italicisation when text is churned through a behind-the-scenes conversion mechanism from wordprocessors such as Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer to DTP programs such as InDesign or QuarkXPress, things often go wrong. The case becomes compounded when texts are converted from programs running on one operating system, such as Mac OS, to another, such as Windows of whatever version.
There is another reason for the decision on not using italic text in news reports. It has proved difficult for people on the online section to maintain the format, which still makes some cases for irritation sometimes.
But in about four years that I have been working with the editorial section, I have always ensured that book titles are in italic type. New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, which is the bible (Hart’s Rules advises the books in the Bible, which is also set in roman, to be in roman type) to many printers, says that titles of work can be given in three ways: in italic type, in roman type and in roman type within quotation marks. It then says: ‘Use italics for titles and subtitles of books (except for books in the Bible, newspapers, magazines, reviews and other periodicals.’
We have a, generally, set rule not to set anything other than book titles and subtitles in italic. Names of newspapers, magazines and periodicals go in roman although we have always set title of chapters within single quotation marks, not the simple vanilla type but the smart ones. As the number of editorials, post-editorials and opinion pieces are far less than the number of news reports, it is easy to ensure that a few phrases are always set in italic type, aberrations have often crept in though.
Such a set practice in New Age has often caused awe to writers especially from the academic arena. Typographic practice, established through centuries, has become norms of publishing, with deviations and aberrations. Some people think something is logical while some other think that this is illogical until the point they both think that there is nothing logical about it. If reading the text can convey the meaning, it being not in italic in writing would definitely do.
The need for text be in italic or roman exposes reporters, editors and writers to confusion when they need to use foreign words. New Hart’s Rules advises foreign words to be set in italic type: ‘Italic type is used for foreign words and phrases in certain circumstances. When a foreign word becomes naturalised into English it is printed in roman type like other English words.’
Binomial nomenclature is, keeping to rules, in italic type. A confusion that reporters, writers and editors at New Age often face is whether to write the name of the genus of mosquito that causes dengue, Aedes aegypti, in italic type. It has almost never been in italic, as has been the case with Homo sapiens, in editorials, opinions or news reports although Aedes mosquito has slipped through the editors in italic type in reports in a few instances.
The (online) Oxford University Press house style for authors suggests foreign words to be set in italic type: the catenaccio defensive system employed by the Italians. Foreign or Latin words that have become naturalised into English shall be in roman type: It was a delicious croissant. Yet New Hart’s Rules says: Convention rather than logic determines when foreign words are sufficiently assimilated into English to e printed in roman type.
All such explanations and arguments make the case for Bangla a bit complex, especially in newspapers published in English from a country where most people use Bangla. Writers often want to and reporters seldom need to use Bangla words to add flavour to text and context. They also might need to do so when the report the speech of people who switch codes, larding Bangla text with English words or buttressing English text with Bangla words.
Words such as jangi, originally meaning militant but coming to mean terrorist especially in this changed world of terrorism and counter-terrorism, has quite often come up in editorial text in New Age. Words such as santras, the use of muscle, or santrasi, musclemen, once — quite a few years ago, I mean — prominently featured even in news reports in New Age. There are, and were, others that came out in print.
Although there has been a shift away from setting words in italic type in publishing in over a decade, the decision to set them either in italic or in roman type has, in a way, only questioned assumptions about the experience of reading. Writers and editors often want to put the Bangla words in italic, indiscriminately — the use of Bangla words in English sometimes appears to be indiscriminate though — but this stands in conflict with the naturalisation of words of one language into another. The wait for words of one language to be naturalised into English so that they could be set in roman type is persistently hindered by setting them in italic type until they become naturalised.
Putting words or phrases in italic type, which is meant for clarity, flags off the words or phrases for readers to be unusual, if not unnatural. It reinforces a monolinguistic culture of othering. And it misrepresents a fundamental aspect of bilingualism, which is natural. People switching back and forth between languages is a natural phenomenon. But setting words and phrases in italic type makes the phenomenon look unnatural. This is not how people sound and this is not how people should sound.

Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.