Visual-Textual Devices for Achieving Emphasis
This handout provides information on visual and textual devices for adding emphasis to your writing including textual formatting, punctuation, sentence structure, and the arrangement of words.
Contributors:Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2013-03-01 10:44:32
In the days before computerized word processing and desktop publishing, the publishing process began with a manuscript and/or a typescript that was sent to a print shop where it would be prepared for publication and printed. In order to show emphasis—to highlight the title of a book, to refer to a word itself as a word, or to indicate a foreign word or phrase—the writer would use underlining in the typescript, which would signal the typesetter at the print shop to use italic font for those words.
Even today, perhaps the simplest way to call attention to an otherwise unemphatic word or phrase is to underline or italicize it.
Flaherty is the new committee chair, not Buckley.
This mission is extremely important for our future: we must not fail!
Because writers using computers today have access to a wide variety of fonts and textual effects, they are no longer limited to underlining to show emphasis. Still, especially for academic writing, italics or underlining is the preferred way to emphasize words or phrases when necessary. Writers usually choose one or the other method and use it consistently throughout an individual essay.
In the final, published version of an article or book, italics are usually used. Writers in academic discourses and students learning to write academic papers are expected to express emphasis primarily through words themselves; overuse of various emphatic devices like changes of font face and size, boldface, all-capitals, and so on in the text of an essay creates the impression of a writer relying on flashy effects instead of clear and precise writing to make a point.
Boldface is also used, especially outside of academia, to show emphasis as well as to highlight items in a list, as in the following examples.
The picture that television commercials portray of the American home is far from realistic.
The following three topics will be covered:
- topic 1: brief description of topic 1
- topic 2: brief description of topic 2
- topic 3: brief description of topic 3
Some writers use ALL-CAPITAL letters for emphasis, but they are usually unnecessary and can cause writing to appear cluttered and loud. In email correspondence, the use of all-caps throughout a message can create the unintended impression of shouting and is therefore discouraged.
Bold or italic—always think of them as mutually exclusive. That is the first rule.
The second rule is to use bold and italic as little as possible. They are tools for emphasis. But if everything is emphasized, then nothing is emphasized. Also, because bold and italic styles are designed to contrast with regular roman text, they’re somewhat harder to read. Like all caps, bold and italic are fine for short stretches of text, but not for long ones.Text that is neither bold nor italic is called roman.
Nevertheless, some writers—let’s call them overemphasizers—just can’t get enough bold and italic. If they feel strongly about the point they’re making, they won’t hesitate to run the whole paragraph in bold type. Don’t be one of these people. This habit wears down your readers’ retinas and their patience. It also gives you nowhere to go when you need to emphasize a word. That’s no problem for overemphasizers, who resort to underlining bold text or using bold italic. These are both bad ideas.
Serif fontssheriff, not sir reef.
Sans serif fonts like Helvetica and Verdana do not have these feet. Though they are associated with contemporary typography, sans serif fonts date from the 1810s. Sans rhymes with hands, not cons. Avoid the common misspelling san serif.
With a serif font, use italic for gentle emphasis, or bold for heavier emphasis.
If you’re using a sans serif font, skip italic and use bold for emphasis. It’s not usually worth italicizing sans serif fonts—unlike serif fonts, which look quite different when italicized, most sans serif italic fonts just have a gentle slant that doesn’t stand out on the page.
by the way
Foreign words used in English are sometimes italicized, sometimes not, depending on how common they are. For instance, you would italicize your and your , but not your croissant or your résumé. When in doubt, consult a dictionary or usage guide. Don’t forget to type the accented characterscorrectly.
Characters adjacent to the outside edges of the emphasized text—like punctuation, parentheses, brackets, and braces—do not get the emphatic formatting.
See headings for tips on how to avoid escalating overemphasis when writing a document with multiple heading levels.
If you need another option for emphasis, consider all caps or small caps.
Some fonts have both a bold style and a semibold style. You can use either for emphasis. I usually prefer bold to semibold because I like the greater contrast with the roman. But semibold is a little easier to read.
Some fonts have styles that are heavier than bold, like black or ultra. These weights are usually intended for large sizes (for instance, headlines) and don’t work well at the size range of most body text.