Rules for Underlining

, Staff Writer
Updated August 18, 2016
Volkswagen Beetle underline example
    Volkswagen Beetle underline example
    Hector Vivas / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images South America

In a time when easy word processing has allowed for typeface styles such as italics to be easily incorporated into text, the importance of underlined (or underscored) text has been greatly diminished. Underlined text is often used in the middle of sentences indiscriminately as a way of providing emphasis, sometimes in superfluous addition to italics and boldface. Even when a discerning individual attempts to use the underscore correctly, he or she often ends up applying the attribute to a word or phrase that does not require an underline. Learn when to underline and the simple rules of underlining words.

When to Underline

Once upon a time, papers used both underlining and italics to add emphasis, but now style guides prefer italicizing in typed papers. Therefore, the rules of underlining words and phrases are only used in handwritten papers you might be turning in. For example, if you handwrite the rough draft of your essay, you might use underlining to show your teacher where you’ll italicize in the final typed draft. Essays, school projects, and research papers will use italics for emphasis in the typed text per style guide and teacher expectations.

Italicizing or underscoring text is used primarily to:

  • Set proper titles apart from regular text
  • Bring importance to names of vehicles
  • Clarify an unfamiliar word
  • Draw emphasis
  • Reference letters and numerals out of context


As most students know, titles of pieces of art, writing, or communication should always be italicized. The underline has been phased out by italicized text. However, some teachers and professors may still prefer the underscore.

Titles to italicize or (underscore) include:

  • Book titles: 1984
  • Magazine and journal titles: The AMA Journal
  • Plays: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Operas: Carmen
  • Long (especially epic) poems: Paradise Lost
  • Long musical pieces (when referenced in a piece of writing): Nutcracker Suite
  • Films: The Godfather
  • Television shows: Sex and the City
  • Radio programs: The Howard Stern Show
  • Pieces of art and sculpture: David
  • Pamphlets: Recent Changes in Medicare Laws
  • Famous speeches: I Have a Dream

Where this rule becomes tricky is in the details:

  • Titles of long sacred works (such as the Bible) are not italicized (or underscored) nor are their individual books such as Genesis.
  • Episodes of television shows, short stories, and religious works are not italicized (or underscored).
  • Some newspapers refuse to underline the "the" in their names, or even the city of origin. This depends entirely upon the preference of the paper.

Names of Vehicles

The names of famous vehicles are to be italicized (or underlined). For example:

  • The names of ships (with the exception of the designation HMS, RMS, or USS): USS Ronald Reagan
  • Space shuttles: Challenger
  • Trains: Orient Express
  • Famous airplanes: The Wright Flyer

On the other hand, airlines, brand names, such as Dodge Charger, and types of vehicles are not italicized or (underlined).

Unfamiliar Words

Unfamiliar and foreign words are often italicized (or underlined in a handwritten paper) to distinguish them from the English language text that surrounds them. Even commonly used foreign words such as et cetera or bon voyage can be underlined in written text. (However, etc. is not underlined.)

You can underline words that are onomatopoeic (stand in for sounds) such as:

  • Kerrow
  • Kerplunk
  • Grr
  • Bzzzz

These words might look fine on their own, but it doesn't hurt to distinguish them from other words. So, these words are commonly italicized.



The need to emphasize the word is among the most common reasons for underlining. Other type styles, such as bold and italic, are used for this reason as well. For example:

  • If a particular word or phrase in a piece of text is to be emphasized, particularly when the piece of text is to be read aloud.
  • To make a word or phrase seem accusatory in nature, as in "you're the real problem here, buster!"

To underscore something in a piece of writing that is particularly important: "books are not to be placed on the floor." The underline gives the word a bit more gravity.

When to Underline in Text

Underlining isn’t used anymore in essays, papers, and publications created with word-processing software. Typically, the only time underlining is used is when someone needs to create emphasis in a handwritten letter or paper like a rough draft. Now that you know the rules for underlining, check out when to use italics and quotation marks in titles.