We now know that there is no death sentence for those who employ foreign words and phrases in their everyday English. However, before I bestow upon you more miraculously acceptable weird phrases, let’s find out how to use them properly. I realize that most of you, despite my vigorous encouragement, will not tell their bosses that the reason you keep on using Facebook at work is not germane to the situation. But how about writing that in an e-mail?

Our instincts tell us that when we write foreign phrases we should signal that in some way: we can use italics, we can use quotation marks or we can underline the foreign word(s). Which solution is the right one?

The ambiguous question of familiarity

At first glance, it may seem that the rule-makers truly believed in our psychic abilities. Can you read minds? Do you know the vernacular of all the English-speakers in the world? Have you talked to every single one of them? These are the questions that somehow pop up when you read the following: “[i]talics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers” (The Chicago Manual of Style, section 7.49). That’s incredibly helpful. Sure, you can just be very pragmatic about it and make your own choices as you go or logically deduce which words are more or less commonly known. You can also approach this problem with attitude and challenge their knowledge however you want. If you know your audience, you have no problem deciding whether certain words or phrases are frequently used in their milieu, e.g. if you are writing a literary essay, you do not need to italicize “pastiche”. What if none of the above is applicable to your situation? Then your only option is to have faith. That’s right, you need to have faith in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. When in doubt, look up its “Foreign Words and Phrases” section and check. Here’s a sample of words that do not need to be italicized:

addendum, ad hoc, à la carte, apropos, attaché, avant-garde, bona fide, bourgeois, carte blanche, cliché, de facto, ex officio, exposé, habeas corpus, machismo, maître d’hôtel, nom de plume, papier-mâché, per annum, per capita and per diem, quasi résumé, status quo, têt-à-tête, vice versa.

More or less intuitive, isn’t it? What’s also natural is that even if you use an unusual foreign word, you only have to italicize it the first time (provided that you use it a lot):

When making pancakes, adding a soupçon of salt to the flour is always a good idea. However, adding a soupçon of sweet pepper or paprika is at one’s own discretion.

There are also those words and phrases that have been in use for such a long time that we have forgotten about their foreign origins. How very cosmopolitan of us! That is why we do not italicize etc., ibid., et al., faux pas, dolce vita or doppelgänger. Since we are so worldly, proper nouns are also never italicized. So a Rose, is still a Rose. After all, Aretha Franklin is always right.


Let me underline something

If you are so over that whole italics phenomenon, you can always go for underlining. In the olden days, before the age of computers, when people and sheep could be seen frolicking in the valleys of roses and what-not, people would underline the words that were in some ways different from others. However, once you make the choice, you have to hang on to it for dear life: editors — and teachers — hate it when you change your mind in the middle of the text. But, really, who doesn’t?