June 20, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Showing emphasis in writing

Posted in Showing emphasis in writing at 6:30 am by dlseltzer

NOTE: Friends, for the foreseeable future, I am only going to cover one tip each week in the wlut; my current schedule doesn’t permit me to address two. But, please, still send me questions and comments; I love to hear from you.

Tip: Showing emphasis in writing

A reader writes:

I’ve been following this blog for a while, and have left a few comments along the way. But I have something here that I can’t seem to find a clear-cut (or consistent) answer for. What do you think of using italics for emphasis in the body of text? Granted, I’m writing this for a marketing magazine, but it seems to me that italicizing in this way would be fine, although I don’t recall ever actually seeing it done. Any input on this would be great.

As our reader sensed, using italics is fine. It’s actually the best way of showing emphasis in text! And it is the method most accepted by journals. The AMA, APA, MLA and the Chicago style manuals all allow such use (with AMA also allowing the use of boldface to show emphasis). Garner and Fowler also approve of using italics for showing emphasis. In fact, the use of italics in this way is traditional. In fact, in the olden days of typesetters and typewriters, when a writer wanted to tell the typesetter that a word was to be emphasized with italics, he would underline it. That’s because there was an underline key on his typewriter, but there were no italics keys. Underlining never made it in to the final publication. Underlining the word meant to italicize the word. A small aside to those who insist on using underlining in your writing: cut it out—underlining was never meant to be in the final product.

I will now go into my well-known rant about underlining. Never underline. Words that are underlined, don’t stand out more—they are more difficult to read! Underlining is a relic of the manual typewriter when there was no way to make something bold or italic. Hard to imagine now, but there really was no way to differentiate a word, but underlining. Now, we can change the font, change the size and color; now, we can italicize text or make text bold—excellent ways of showing emphasis. Underlining does nothing but obscure your text and punctuation—don’t do it. As I said before, CUT IT OUT.

Now back to my discussion of using italics for emphasis. It is a well-approved method of showing emphasis but the references all caution that you should not italicize too often as overuse makes reading difficult, and the words you are trying to emphasize can lose their apparent importance. The references all agree that you shouldn’t mix your methods of italicizing (e.g., boldface, italics) because the result would be confusing for a reader. They also agree that you should never show emphasis using quotation marks because that implies irony rather than emphasis. And I don’t have to tell you, do I, that we should never use exclamation points in our formal scientific writing, and even in more informal writing, there is never a need for more than one exclamation point!!!!!

I think I’ve covered all of the points I want to make—oh wait, let me add this: don’t use all capital letters to show emphasis. This is another relic from the days of typewriting, and LETTERS THAT ARE ALL CAPITALIZED ARE MORE DIFFICULT TO READ. It can also make the reader feel as if he or she is being yelled at. So avoid using capital letters for emphasis.

Okay, we’ve got it now.



  1. Brian said,

    I always figured that italicizing shows emphasis because it’s as if you were handwriting it yourself, giving it more significance. That’s how I think of it personally anyway.

    Speaking of italics, is that word considered singular or plural? I noticed you avoided using it where its plurality would be implicated. What if I wanted to write “italics is/are for emphasis”—”is” or “are”?

    Lastly, the reason I am writing this comment in the first place: It was my understanding that independent clauses following a comma start capitalized (like this one). And dependent clauses, phrases, lists, etc. do not start capitalized. When you said “cut it out” in your post, I just had to bring it up. Are you aware of any rules about this?


    PS: According to your suggestion, I’ve also been making an effort to avoid the use of “in order to” and to just use “to,” even though I think there are situations where “in order to” would be less ambiguous.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Hello, the word, italics, is plural. I would write ‘Italics are used when you want to show emphasis.’ I am not familiar with the rule you cite about capitalizing an independent clause following a comma and none of my references support it; however, the clause is sometimes capitalized following a colon. Hope this helps.

  2. Brian said,

    Sorry, I meant independent clauses following a colon, not a comma. Do you have any leads on when it would be capitalized following a colon? I found a source that supports what I’m suggesting: http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000044.htm

    Your italics rule helped, thanks.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Hi. I have been meaning to write you. Here is a link to my write-up on capitalization after a colon: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/capitalization-after-colon/

      • Brian said,

        Great, that’s helpful. Thanks for getting back. It seems while you recommend capitalizing independent clauses, you don’t see it incorrect otherwise, as long as it’s consistent throughout the document. Cheers.

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