Let’s face it, whenever we’re talking to a friend or on social media, we never formally distinguish titles of anything using italics, quotation marks, or anything other than a mere capitalization in the appropriate places. In casual conversation there’s no need to because whoever you’re talking to will know what you mean.
If you’re like me, it means you have to look up whether movies or video games are italicized every time the information is relevant simply because you store that knowledge in the short term and you forget it within ten minutes. If nothing else, this post will help me remember when to use what so I never have to waste time verifying that Star Wars IV: A New Hope should be italicized.
After doing a bit of extensive research here, it seems to be a bit arbitrary, but I’ve found some general rules. If you read nothing else here (aka TL:DR;) this is the simple go-to. Use italics for everything except short works, and underline things when you would italicize but can’t (i.e. handwriting).
In my mind, it’s best to work with the assumption that everything should be italicized and include exceptions rather than provide a list of both (especially since the list of italicized instances is far longer). This means books, movies, video games, and tv shows would all be italicized. If you’re writing something by hand (and obviously can’t italicize it), just underline it instead. You almost never underline something when you’re typing.
So when I say to use quotation marks for short works, what qualifies as “short”? The easy answer is essays, poems, short stories, and song titles. You also use quotation marks for using pieces of longer works. This means if you’re quoting a chapter of a book, or an episode of a tv show, that title would be in quotation marks because its a specific piece of the entire work. This also applies for music albums versus song titles (italicize the former, use quotation marks on the latter). A website should be italicized, but a page on that website should have quotation marks.
But why bother at all, you ask? Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have to learn this? Perhaps, but like many specific grammar rules, it’s all for clarification. As I said before, your friend will know what you mean when you’re talking to him about the new Scooby Doo movie (making up an example here). But if you write in an essay or on social media “I saw Scooby Doo” without any formatting, nobody will know what you mean. Did you see the new movie? Or are you saying you saw the fictional character walking around in real life? We don’t know if there is a title in that sentence because since it is the name of a character, it would be a proper noun anyway (and thus the name should be capitalized no matter what). So, when you can, say “I saw Scooby Doo“. That way people can differentiate between your words and the name of something that’s been pre-established.
Though, now that I think about it, this doesn’t apply to social media at all. You can’t use any formatting on a Facebook or Twitter post. Oh, well. Maybe you have an essay to write (or two, like me), and I saved you a minute of looking it up by eating a few minutes forcing you to read this whole thing.