As a child, when I was taught to write my book reports in elementary school, I was told time and time again: Underline the titles of books, or I would be marked down. But then in high school, I was taught that, no, no, no, we italicize our book titles. When I asked my teacher why the change, she said she honestly didn’t know. It was simply becoming more “popular” to italicize.
I knew there had to be a real reason, however, rather than a simple change in aesthetic. And, of course, there is.
What’s the difference? Here’s where it gets a little funny:
There isn’t one.
When one underlines a title (note: this applies to longer works such as books, epic poems, periodicals, newspapers etc. Shorter works such as single poems, short stories and song titles are encased in quotation marks), this signifies a note, presumably to the editor, to italicize the marked words.
Example: In the good guide to grammar, Punctuation Plain & Simple, by Edgar and Jean Alward, I learned that titles come before proper names.
Example: In the late-nineteenth century novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, the title character undergoes many hardships before achieving true happiness.
Example: I think the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is one of Robert Frost’s best.
As most of us have no editors—or if we do, we hopefully try to make their jobs as easy as is possible—there is not only no need to underline, but it looks, dare I speak the word?, unprofessional. If you are writing something by hand, and then intend to type it, underlining can be more visible than trying to make your cursive look like italics. But when it is typed, do be sure to use italics, rather than an underscore.
Though I can see why, I suppose, we are taught in grade school to underline. When I was a child, back before the real boom of technology, we weren’t “taught” typing until fifth or sixth grade. As my handwriting was already rather atrocious (my school refused to allow us to print anything; papers had to be written in cursive at all times), attempting to make me write a title in italics would, most assuredly, have been a really rather rotten idea.