Skip to content

Essays Italicized Or Underlined Fonts

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.