Understanding Your Proofreader’s Work: Non-English Words in English Texts

A few mornings ago, as I was up early brewing tea, feeding my cats, tossing seed to the birds outside, and preparing for my morning asanas, the sky illuminated deep and bold tones of color that demonstrate why the mountain range to the east of where I live is known as the Sangre de Cristos, reflecting various shades of red. Admittedly, I don’t think about it much, but written down it almost seems like I should name the colors in Spanish, though I have to google the names for rojo, carmesí, carmín, bermellón.

I clicked a few quick photos with my phone, including the image of this post, which doesn’t really portray the color of the moment but will have to suffice. 

Later last week as I was thinking of examples for this post on foreign words in English writing, while scrolling my phone, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to look any farther than a description of my typical morning routine.

Foreign words frequently find their way into English writing. Words, phrases, and even sentences in other languages might make an appearance on the page.  Fiction and nonfiction books referencing scientific terminology, like plant and animal taxonomies and genuses, often contain non-English words. They may also refer to religious and spiritual terminology or historical events from other languages. Fiction narrative or dialogue might include a language other than English for a variety of reasons. There may be a character from a foreign country. Or stream of consciousness might drift between two or more languages as an artistic choice. 


Do you pause over whether or not to italicize words like “Sangre de Cristo” or “asana” after you type them? Or have you pondered why a proofreader may have italicized some of the foreign words in your book but not others?

Say, for example, you had sent the first paragraph of this blog off to a proofreader, and they returned it to you as it appears above. You may have heard the advice of styling foreign words as italic, so the Spanish words for colors in italics might not surprise you.

But not all the Spanish and non-English words are italicized above, so did the proofreader miss a lot of words or does that “rule” not to apply in all situations?

I won’t try to tell you that proofreaders never miss anything, but I can tell you the decision behind the italics in this instance. And if your own draft was returned to you with only some of the foreign words in italics, don’t be too quick to assume that it’s rushed and shoddy work. It’s a matter of asking the right questions and knowing where to look for answers.


First, check the newest version of Merriam-Webster. Okay, no. First check the editing and proofreading notes and see if there’s a comment of explanation; if there’s not, or if you’re self-editing, make a list of the foreign words that aren’t italicized. Then, recheck your document.

Were they italicized on first mention? If so, then your proofreader may still have done their due diligence because, much of the time, italics on first mention of the word is all that’s required (this will vary from style book to style book—Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), Modern Language Association (MLA), or American Psychological Association (APA) for instance. Regardless of whether you’re writing in American or British English, you can ask your editor or proofreader which style they followed if you’re unsure.

If you’re still not clear on why italics were suggested for some of the foreign words in your text but not others, follow my original advice and search Merriam-Webster for American English or Oxford or Cambridge for British English.


Search for the words that aren’t in italics. If you find them in the dictionary, that’s the answer to why they aren’t italicized. Some non-English words are so commonly used that they aren’t considered foreign anymore and have received dictionary recognition. There’s no need to italicize those words in your text.

Additionally, editing and proofreading is more subjective than many people realize. Sometimes location plays a role in the decision. I live in a region in which Spanish is as predominant (or more so) in some parts of the state as English—it was spoken here first and is spoken frequently (not by me, unfortunately). The degree to which Spanish words are considered foreign for writing in this state (and other states) is a decision of interpretation. And that also applies to Native American languages in this region, and arguably others.

Above, I italicized names of colors in Spanish, but I left “asana” and “Sangre de Cristo” in Roman type. That’s because I follow the Chicago Manual of Style  for my blog. I italicized words for colors because in the context of my blog written in English. I didn’t italicize “Sangre de Cristo” because it’s a proper noun and not subject to italics according to CMOS. “Asana” isn’t italicized because it appears in Merriam-Webster and has been integrated into the English language along with the Westernization of yoga.

Pro tip: If you include an entire sentence or more of non-English language, italics are likely not necessary to apply—but check with your style guide and/or proofreader for a decision. Or, if it’s your own choice, ensure that it’s applied consistently.

How many foreign words can you identify in your morning routine? Or, your day-to-day writing?

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