I learned via Dennis Jerz’s blog today and found more details at the Purdue OWL that the Modern Language Association is officially saying that underlining is out and italics is in. I suppose the bigger news is MLA saying that URLs are no longer required (and I agree with Dennis that sometimes requiring URLs makes a lot of sense), but I have to say my geeky little English professor heart skipped a beat at the victory about italics. My victory, that is.
Back in 1996, after I had finished and defended my dissertation, Annette and I were spending the spring/summer that year preparing for the move to Oregon for my first tenure-track job and I was running through the last details of submitting my dissertation to the graduate college for their official stamp of approval before it went off to the binary, DAI, and points beyond. This is a process which exists at all graduate schools (at least it did– maybe these offices have been phased out with more and more electronic publication of these projects?), and it is mostly to make sure that dissertations and theses adheared to standard formatting in terms of a style manual and also in terms of dimensions of the document so it could be properly bound.
As I understood it, the office that did the reviewing at BGSU was staffed with graduate students on various assistantships, which meant that the level of scrutiny these documents received kind of varied. I was lucky enough to get a, um, “eager beaver,” as my reviewer. I submitted my completed diss, and I got back what I believe was a print letter/memo (I don’t think it was an email, though I think I emailed my response) that indicated some real proof-reading errors I needed to fix, and two other global “errors” the reviewer insisted I correct. First, this person said that I couldn’t use any contractions so I had to change all of them throughout the manuscript. Second, I was told that I had to change all uses of italics to underlined text.
First off, I responded, there’s no rule in MLA style about the use of contractions, and I used them correctly. Second, MLA’s rules for underlining versus italics was inconclusive, and I personally preferred the use of italics. So, in effect, my response to the manuscript reviewer was “Thanks for your thoughts, but I’m not making those changes. Let’s move on.” The response I received was something along the lines of “While I will conceede that your use of contractions does not violate MLA style, I must insist that the use of italics is incorrect. Please make the appropriate changes.”
My response to this was (and I believe this is the technical phrase) I blew a nut. I was not about to have my completed dissertation derailed by some underline-happy MA student. To make a long-story short, I had to cite chapter and verse in MLA style to this person’s supervisor, who did admit that this person trying to hold up the process after my successful defense was perhaps overstepping their bounds just a tad. So the italics stood, and have always made a point of instructing my students that either underlining or italics is okay.
I’m looking forward to now telling my students to ditch the underlining.