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As I understand, LaTeX supports both via \textit and \textsl respectively, but what is the difference between the two?

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An italic typeface is a slanted typeface that is usually based on calligraphic writing. –  Marc van Dongen May 13 '13 at 5:42
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1 Answer 1

When both attributes differ, slanted is an oblique version of the roman font; the shape is basically the same but "sloped". Italics, on the other hand, have different letter shapes. The following example shows the difference:

\documentclass{article}

\begin{document}
\Huge

Some text

\textit{Some text}

\textsl{Some text}

\end{document}

enter image description here

Notice that some sans-serif fonts (Computer Modern sans-serif, for example) don't have a "true" italic font but just a slanted version of the roman form:

\documentclass{article}

\begin{document}
\Huge\sffamily

Some text

\textit{Some text}

\textsl{Some text}

\end{document}

enter image description here

On the other hand, as Speravir mentions in his comment, not every roman/serif font has a slanted form:

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage{tgpagella}

\begin{document}
\Huge

Some text

\textit{Some text}

\textsl{Some text}

\end{document}

enter image description here

Here's what Donald E. Knuth says (page 13 of The TeXbook):

Notice that two of these faces have an "oblique" slope for emphasis: Slanted type is essentially the same as roman, but the letters are slightly skewed, while the letters in italic type are drawn in a different style. (You can perhaps best appreciate the difference between the roman and italic styles by contemplat- ing letters that are in an unslanted italic face.) Typographic conventions are presently in a state of transition, because new technology has made it possible to do things that used to be prohibitively expensive; people are wrestling with the question of how much to use their new-found typographic freedom. Slanted roman type was introduced in the 1930s, but it first became widely used as an alternative to the conventional italic during the late 1970s. It can be beneficial in mathematical texts, since slanted letters are distinguishable from the italic letters in math formulas. The double use of italic type for two different purposes—for example, when statements of theorems are italicized as well as the names of variables in those theorems—has led to some confusion, which can now be avoided with slanted type. People are not generally agreed about the relative merits of slanted versus italic, but slanted type is rapidly becoming a favorite for the titles of books and journals in bibliographies.

As Philippe Goutet comments, Knuth's account is biased. What he fails to mention is that the widespread use of slanted type in the 1970s was only due to the fact that to cut the cost of making an italic font, the roman font was automatically slanted, which deforms letters (see e.g. blogs.adobe.com/typblography/2010/05/hypatia_sans_pr). For example, Knuth's slanted cmss has many of the typical defects of automatically slanted fonts, even though he used Metafont. And even today, serif typefaces with a good slanted variant are extremely rare, so if you care about typography, you should stick to italics.

As a final remark, besides the commands (with arguments) \textsl and \textit for slanted and italics, respectively there's also the font switches \slshape and \itshape.

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On the other hand not every roman/serif font has a slanted form, compare e.g. mathpazo with tgpagella. –  Speravir Aug 27 '12 at 1:34
    
@Speravir Ah, nice remark. I'll add some examples to my answer. Thanks you! –  Gonzalo Medina Aug 27 '12 at 1:43
    
In the second MWE (with the sans-serif fonts), you may want to change the first line (via a \textsf directive) to show an upright-sf rather than an upright-rm text snippet. –  Mico Aug 27 '12 at 3:02
3  
Knuth's account is extremely biased. What he fails to mention is that the widespread use of slanted type in the 1970s was only due to the fact that to cut the cost of making an italic font, the roman font was automatically slanted, which deforms letters (see e.g. blogs.adobe.com/typblography/2010/05/hypatia_sans_pr.html). For example, Knuth's slanted cmss has many of the typical defects of automatically slanted fonts, even though he used Metafont. And even today, serif typefaces with a good slanted variant are extremely rare, so if you care about typography, you should stick to italics. –  Philippe Goutet Aug 27 '12 at 8:27
1  
@PhilippeGoutet I'd agree: I've always thought Knuth's statement there is misleading, and if you look at good-quality material produced since the publication of The TeXbook italic is still by far the more popular choice. –  Joseph Wright Aug 27 '12 at 8:37
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