I'm writing a story which requires frequent switching between languages, sometimes in the same sentence.

I thought about writing the foreign language in italics, but the problem is that I already use italics for emphasis, so it's not consistent and would be confusing. Underline looks strange and color is not possible.

Example: I want to do something like this, where the italics would represent the non-English language and non-italics represents English.

Wow! You finally listened to my stinking advice!

This seems to read the best, as it's all in English, even if it looks a bit strange (and I would hope the reader would understand once I set up this device), but it's a moot point because I'm using italics for emphasis elsewhere already.

I thought about writing the other language in the actual foreign language, but I cannot reveal the language at this point. But even if I could, I'd still have to footnote every sentence, which is also cumbersome and makes the readability difficult.

Are there a tried and true techniques to do this?

  • Thanks. Will check those posts out.
    – romebot
    Sep 9, 2019 at 21:03

2 Answers 2


Placing foreign languages phrases in italics is a well established convention that extends outside the bounds of fiction. It is always vastly preferable to stick with established conventions since people are much more apt to recognize them than anything you invent for yourself. Still, I would recommend that you explain what is happening the first time you introduce the convention.

"Which way to the police station" he said in Russian.

I would also recommend that you do not use italics for emphasis. You will find that this is done very rarely in fiction, and for good reason.

First of all, you should avoid the temptation to try to act out your dialogue. You are not writing a movie script. In a movie script, you need to leave room for an actor to act. For this reason, movie dialogue is often quite banal. It is up to the actor, not the words, to supply the emotion.

But in fiction, you should let the words do the work as words. If you want to express an emotion or create emphasis on a particular word, rework the sentence so that the emphasis falls on that word without having to resort to emphasis. For example.

Instead of writing,

He dropped his wallet into the collection plate.


It was his wallet that he dropped into the collection plate.


Into the collection plate he dropped his wallet.

Not the most dramatic example, but you can see how in the latter two cases the emphasis naturally falls on "wallet" just by the way they sentence is constructed.

In short, for both the matter of emphasis and the matter of foreign language, you would be best served by sticking to the established conventions.

  • Thanks @markbaker. I actually started using italics for emphasis after enjoying its use in literature. Salinger for example. It works for me, but I see your point.
    – romebot
    Sep 9, 2019 at 21:02

Maybe enclose the words in some other punctuation?


"Wow! You [finally listened to] my stinking advice!"

Curly Brackets:

"Wow! You {finally listened to} my stinking advice!"


"Wow! You «finally listened to» my stinking advice!"

Experiment with colons, asterisks, et al.

  • Thanks, all good suggestions. I had seen some of those browsing this site and google but I don’t really fancy the way it looks/reads. I’ll keep thinking on it. Thanks again.
    – romebot
    Sep 8, 2019 at 22:13
  • 1
    I would avoid this, it looks unpleasant and reads unnaturally. Sep 9, 2019 at 2:27

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