Many creative and business users make little distinction between italic, oblique and slanted fonts, but italics have a unique style that’s all their own.

Most modern serif font families have italic styles that can stand by themselves as a unique typeface while also serving as an oblique version of the upright, roman styles on which they are based. In contrast, many sans serif families don’t include italic styles and instead offer oblique variations.

How Italics Came to Be

Historians credit Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo of Venice for first using italic type in 1500 to print small poetry books and manuscripts as replacements for traditional, handwritten texts. Their cursive style reflected the informal nature of the works and replaced more formal roman type used for longer, reference works. That calligraphic style has survived through the centuries, as well as through the transition from manually drawn type to digital fonts.

By the 1600s, it became commonplace to use slanted type to add emphasis to passages in typeset documents, another practice that continues to this day.

Italic vs. Oblique and Slanted Styles

In everyday conversation, most people use the terms italic, oblique and slanted interchangeably to refer to font styles that lean to the right. And in fact, the great majority of oblique and slanted styles are simply slanted versions of their roman or regular font with few significant changes.

Italics Are Stylin’

Italics are something special. They are more cursive and more condensed than their upright, roman siblings, and are designed to complement their font families. Their glyphs have their own shapes and widths that are more fluid and compact, often appearing to be calligraphic or hand-drawn.

Designers Take All Sides

While many of us don’t notice the difference in oblique letterforms, designers have differing opinions on their use. Some see obliques as plain and undifferentiated from upright text and feel they don’t provide enough emphasis in actual use. Others think those same obliques provide subtle emphasis where needed since they are softer and less disruptive than italics. Similarly, some see italics as stylized, persuasive and organic, while others find their differences from their base fonts to be too jarring.

Even with all these diverse opinions, there is some agreement that italics often work better in serif families and obliques thrive in sans serif families.

You Can’t Always Trust Font Names

Font designers choose which style variations to include in their font families and what to name the individual styles. Some families include both italic and oblique styles, some include one or the other, and others include no slanted fonts whatsoever.

In other families, designers use the wrong term – italic when they mean oblique or slanted, or vice versa. For more details on font name games, see the Inside Scoop story entitled “What’s in a Font Name?”

What’s the lesson here? Use a good font manager like FontAgent® to make sure you know what you’re using in advance.

Avoid Using Apps to Italicize Fonts

Be very careful about using an Italic command in software applications to specify italics. In many cases, the applications will produce a slanted version of your font on the fly instead of using its actual italic or oblique version. The worst offender is Microsoft Word, which makes it too easy to click the little toolbar button to italicize a text passage.

By clicking the Italic button, you often ignore a beautiful italic font created specifically to complement its roman counterpart. Instead, you get type whose shape, slant and proportions look ugly and unprofessional. To make sure you get the real deal, highlight the text passage and use the Font menu in your app to select the italic style. Your readers and the world of font designers will thank you.