Pet peeve: italicized block quotes

I had already started drafting this post when the lovely folks at wordpress.com posed the question “if you could change one thing about your theme what would it be?” My answer applies not only to Twenty Ten but many other themes as well.

What I would change is the heavily-styled block quotes. Many themes sport giant quotation marks and fat vertical lefthand borders with their block quotes. Ugly and pointless. But even worse is the themes, like Twenty Ten, which add italics. This is a serious problem. Ok, maybe not serious like war and pestilence, but it’s more than just a matter of personal preference.

Italics convey meaning. If you’ve ever read a novel that uses italics to convey a character’s inner thoughts, you know what I’m talking about. The italics add weight — portent — and writers hopefully wouldn’t do that unless they had a good reason. Italics are not decorative. When a wordpress theme (for example) forces you to have your blockquotes in italics it is giving a meaning to your words that you may not intend.

Italicizing something that’s already indented in order to “set it off” is redundant. Twenty Ten, WordPress’s default theme, is very well designed for the most part. In fact, except for the italicized block quotes, I think it’s fantastic. Over at the demo blog they defend their decision because “Italics are good to help set it off from the body text (and italic Georgia is lovely at this size).” Ok, I agree wholeheartedly that italic Georgia is lovely at this size, but indentation alone is plenty sufficient to set the quote off from the body text.

Forcing you to italicize quoted material probably means you’re quoting it incorrectly. Let’s not forget that the purpose of block quotes is to set off large blocks of quoted material. Quoted material. When you are quoting someone else’s words you are morally obligated to quote them correctly. If the original has italics, so should yours. If the original does not, neither should yours. If you add italics into quoted material you are supposed to let your reader know with an “italics mine” at the end. Because, you know, italics convey meaning.

There are a couple of ways you can get around the italics, short of paying for the CSS upgrade or (cross your fingers) persuading the theme designers to change the code. Both hacks are problematic from a web standards point of view, though. If you want a tutorial or more explanation leave me a comment and I’ll write a follow up post, but I think I’m done ranting for now. Hopefully wordpress.com is listening…

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10 Comments

  1. This is a helpful post. I use CSS pull quotes but may be guilty, occasional, in double dipping emphasis. I have been schooled.

    Regards,
    Doug

    Reply
  2. I’m glad it was helpful. But you know, feel free to put italics in your block quotes if you want to. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate! I just think that the writer, not the theme designer, should be the one to make that choice.

    Reply
  3. You are rad for posting this. Thanks, Mo!

    Reply
  4. Why thank you. I keep hoping Matt Mullenweg will send me a dozen roses as a token of his appreciation but it hasn’t happened yet…

    Reply
  5. Kim

     /  June 4, 2011

    I was just thinking the same thing, while uploading a new story to my blog, and decided to do a quick search to see if others are experiencing this. I tried un-italicizing after I did the clicked the block quote button. That seemed to work, but the post is still only in draft form. Hopefully, it stays that way when I publish. Keeping my fingers crossed.

    Reply
    • Hi Kim, thanks for your comment. I like your fix. My only concern is if you wanted to have some italics in your block quote they might not show either. You might have to go back and hand-code them in.

      Another option is to skip the block quote function altogether and just indent the paragraph. (There is a button for that in the visual editor. It’s in the second row, so you might have to flip the “kitchen sink” toggle to see it.) I like this option a lot because it keeps the quote completely clean — no giant quotation marks or fat borders, just an indented paragraph. However, one drawback is that it is not as “accessible” as using true block quotes. A screen reader would not be able to let a blind person know that the paragraph is a block quote, whereas if you use a true block quote, it would.

      Argh!

      Reply
  6. Joy

     /  July 1, 2011

    WOW, Mo, this was very helpful! IA co-editor just suggested italizing block quotes, but my years of APA schooling rang a -ve bell within me, so i thought to google “Should we italize block quotes?” Your take on using italics only for emphasis & to convey meaning couldn’t have been said any better. Plus, you hit the bull at the eye by reminding us that italizing block quotes will seem like plagiarism if we do not include “italics mine” in the block quotes. I don’t care whether it is author’s or editor’s decision, but italizing an entire block quote is like so REDUNDANT! … and retarded, lol!

    Reply
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  1. Block quotes revisited | Mo's Blog

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