At 8 a.m. on a beautiful spring day, it's difficult to get students excited about whether to underline a title or put it in quotation marks, so I ask for a volunteer, and eventually a student--let's call him Matt--comes to the front of the room.
"Look at Matt," I tell the class. "If he were a publication, he could be a newspaper or a magazine or an anthology or any number of other things, but let's call him a book."
Matt just stands there.
"Since he is a whole publication complete in itself, let's underline him."
I mime drawing a line on the floor under Matt's feet, and then I write Matt on the board and underline it.
"Now let's talk about Matt's arm. Matt, put your arm straight out to your side." Being a good sport, Matt complies. "If we cut off Matt's arm and toss it out in the hall, it won't get anywhere on its own. It is not independent but rather functions as a part of a larger whole. If Matt is a newspaper, his arm is an article; if Matt is a book, his arm is a chapter; if Matt is a poetry anthology, his arm is a single poem."
Matt's arm does not look particularly poetic, but we go on anyway.
"Since Matt's arm is a small part of a larger whole, let's put it in quotation marks."
Matt holds his arm up close to the whiteboard and I surround it with quotation marks.
"If you are trying to decide whether to put a title of a work in quotation marks or underline it," I say, "Let Matt be your guide: if the work is more like Matt, underline it; if it's more like Matt's arm, put it in quotation marks."
Matt seems delighted to be allowed to sit down. I don't know about Matt's arm.
We spend the next few minutes looking at titles of different types of sources: articles, books, poems, articles about books, books about poems, articles about articles. I ask the students how to format the titles, and they get most of them right. When I ask why, they say, "Because it's Matt" or "because it's Matt's arm."
Maybe they'll remember this little lesson and apply it in their writing assignments, or maybe not. I leave the students with one final suggestion: "If you're frantically trying to finish a paper at 4 a.m. and you can't remember whether to underline a title or put it in quotation marks, don't call me," I tell them. "Call Matt. I'm sure he'll be happy to help."