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In my current novel I have a few characters who speak Spanish. The book takes place along the Texico border, so it happens frequently. I know that in more foreign Spanish, or when someone speaks a full sentance, it should be italicized. If they are more common words or phrases, i.e. "hola", "sí" and "señor", do I italicize them?

My confusion comes when someone is saying "sí" and then the rest of the sentence in English. Also, when someone addresses someone else as "Señor Cortez" and "Señorita Venegas", do I italicize just the title, the whole name, or nothing at all?

After that long question, I now have a question to tail that: when do I use accents for those more common words?

I feel like the word "si" wouldn't have an accent if spoken by someone who was speaking in English, but then it wouldn't be italicized (consequently, "si" and "sí" are two different words). Same with "senor". I've seen some authors spell it a bit phonetically to emphasize the character's lathargy when speaking ("senhor").

I would love some insight! I'm very comfortable using the language. While it is not my first language, I studied it profusely in school. Would love to use it and not look like an idiot.

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3 Answers 3

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I think you're on the right track. The point of italics is to alert the reader that the words are not in the same language as the rest of the text.

I like the logic that the English-spoken "si" wouldn't be italicized. I wouldn't italicize titles or single words, as those are easy enough to understand, even when the first word is Spanish and the rest is English. Add any accents as appropriate and leave it roman.

Full sentences in Spanish would be italics.

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It depends on the style guide you subscribe to.

  1. AP Style does not use italics.
  2. The Chicago Manual recommends use of italics for isolated words that are likely to be unfamiliar to the reader. If a word will become familiar over the course of the writing, it needs only be italicized the first time. Entire sentences are not italicized.
  3. MLA Style recommends the same as Chicago.
  4. APA recommends same as Chicago.

These are the most common style guides; many publications have house style guides. You may create your own for your own work if you like. The most important thing is to be consistent within a work.

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Creating a style sheet for a novel is useful, particularly at the editing stage. –  Neil Fein Aug 26 '12 at 7:17

FWIW, senhor isn't spanish (I think it's portuguese, in fact). As a native spanish speaker, seeing "senhor" when people are supposedly speaking spanish would make me cringe. I won't comment on the use of italics, but please, please, use "señor".

Regarding the accents, as you probably know, there are a few words that have different meanings with and without accent. For those that don't (e.g. either the accented or unaccented version exists, but not both), the meaning will be clear, but it won't feel completely right.

In fact, "sí" means "yes", and "si" means "if". Not sure about the official position of the RAE regarding accents on single-syllable words, though.

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