Communication Skills

JS Tip 239: From the Writing Workshops: Using Emphasis Devices

Using italics.

Using boldface print.

Using underlines.

All the same.

Right?

Nope.

Different.

Use italics to emphasize a specific word or phrase. Italics lean to the right. They lean forward. They’re in your face. They emphasize. (See?)

Use them sparingly. When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

Use boldface print in titles and headings. Boldface print, by its nature, attracts the eye and directs it to the text it serves. It lets your readers pick and choose the texts they’re interested in.

Boldface titles and headings can stand alone, or they can run into a paragraph (as “Use boldface print” did in the previous paragraph). These are called—appropriately enough—“run-in headings.”

Don’t use boldface to emphasize a word or phase. It’s overkill. It attracts too much attention.

Don’t use underlines. Period. Don’t use them. They’re a remnant of the typewriter age. When a writer using a typewriter wanted to emphasize a word or phrase, she’d backspace-backspace-backspace-backspace and underline-underline-underline-underline.

But when her manuscript got to the printer, the printer would convert the underlined text into . . . italics. Yup. The underlining represented italics.

But you’ve got italics on your word processor. You don’t need to substitute underlines for italics. Underlines also make the text harder to read: they cut through the “descenders” (the “tails”) of certain letters (the g, j, p, q, and y) and make them harder to recognize. Don’t use underlines.             

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