Just Your Type

Type, design, writing and other funny stuff

Underlines for emphasis? How about never.

Underlined text looks like hyperlinks.

Underlined text looks like hyperlinks.

When you want to say something big — no, big — no, REALLY BIG, BIGGER THAN BIG, THE BIGGEST OF THE BIGS — should you choose italics, ALL CAPS, or underlined text?

First, consider none of those. Try letting the text speak for itself, rather than using formatting to speak for it. You’ll be surprised how often your story can remain clear and effortless without any text formatting at all. Indeed, reading this paragraph is a whole lot easier than the over-formatted one above. AM I RIGHT?

So okay, you’re sure you need emphasis after all. Which styling is best?

The case against underlines

Look at the sample text above. We’ve learned that underlined text is supposed to be more important, so that part works okay. But in this World of Internet Things we live in, many browsers use underlined text to suggest a hyperlink to another website. (They also often make links purple — don’t get me started on what a graceless idea that is.)

So what? So this: on websites, PDFs and eBooks, your readers will try to click on the link. Did you try to click on the purple word purple above? Nothing happened, in spite of it being underlined. And purple. Readers will think your document is broken, and they’ll pull out a voodoo doll of you and poke it for making them feel stupid.

Worse, the underlines cross right through the carefully designed descenders of the font: every g and j and p will have a fat black line across it. It looks crowded. To my eye, even underlined CAPITALS look jammed up. Underlining isn’t part of a font’s design, so it rarely looks like a nice addition.

So scratch out underlining for emphasis and leave it to the hyperlinks.

All caps: do you really need to SHOUT?

Maybe you do. Maybe your character is yelling his head off. But ALL CAPS has a big downside: it stands out on the page, calling attention to itself before the reader gets to the actual content.

Capital letters stand out on the page before you even read it.

Capital letters stand out on the page before you even read it.

In the sample above, the capitalized words might as well be in hyperlink purple. As soon as you see the page they draw your eye to them, without the benefit of context. Your eye scans the page, picks out every capitalized word, your brain wonders why, then hopefully you go back to actually reading the text.

It’s subtle, but it interrupts the reading experience. We want reading to be so effortless that the audience doesn’t even notice the process, and just wallows in your brilliant story.

Bonus points for proportional oldstyle numerals: Let’s digress. Notice the numerals “$28,000” on the sample page above? You had to search a bit, didn’t you? That’s because the number was set in an “oldstyle” font. All OpenType fonts include oldstyle numerals, which are designed with ascenders and descenders just like other letters. That helps them blend into the text. Normal “lining” numerals are all the same height, and guess what? They look just like ALL CAPS. Google your writing program to find out how to call up the oldstyle option where appropriate. It’s usually about as easy as choosing italics or underlines.

And the winner is: italics for emphasis

Italic text is designed to blend perfectly with its surroundings, yet give the reader a little nudge. It doesn’t look dramatic, but that’s the whole idea. Let the reader add the drama in her head. Her imagination will do the shouting, and in her imagination is where you want to work. Underlines and all-caps risk yanking the reader back to the cold reality of your physical page. Italics work more like a whisper in imagination’s ear.

Italics blend perfectly with the text while still conveying emphasis.

Italics blend perfectly with the text while still conveying emphasis.

Trust your reader to do the heavy lifting regarding how your story characters sound. Don’t force it with big font choices. Your words should do the talking, not your letters. And here’s a bonus primer on how to set italics properly.

Do you find the text samples above intriguing? They’re lifted from my latest book Of Mice and MeAnd that’s in italics only because it’s a book title. That’s the law.

Previously on Just Your Type:

Should punctuation be included in italics?

  This problem came up in a book I was working on recently. The author italicized a lot of words, but didn't include any of his punctuation in the italicization. Put another way, his words were italic, but his punctuation was Roman. It left a lot of visual crashes. As...

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300 dpi JPEG: No such thing?

Graphic Artist Person asked you to provide a 300-dpi JPEG of your headshot. "Fine, right away" you say. You open your image editor and resize your lovey face using its export options, like this… …and you email her the resulting JPEG image. The next morning she writes...

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Mean what you say

I'd love to think the Flat Earth Society has a great sense of humor. More likely, they have more interest in being provocative than in being correct. And they don't read their own posts much, or the one above might not have hung around as long as it did. Now, if you...

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Kerning is king

Okay, the photo they chose for their ad doesn’t help the confusion, but is their bar name one word or two? I'm guessing it’s located close to either a hospital or a frat house. If the latter, it's spelled "rapey." And c'mon, guys: it's li’l, not lil’. The apostrophe...

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Cast of characters

#HashtagsAreAllTheRage. Oddly, that # character isn't called a hash—not in America, anyway. We call it the pound sign, or (with pinky raised) the octothorpe. (The geniuses at Bell Laboratories gave that fancy name when they added it to the telephone keypad, because...

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Prime time

When I first saw print ads featuring a prime when they meant to use an apostrophe, I considered it the sign of another amateur who got his first computer. When a similar gaffe appeared in a Time Magazine ad—the ad must have cost $30,000—I could imagine how my parents...

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Dot… dot… dot…

So I was thinking… how fast can I introduce improper use of the ellipsis?Not bad, eh? Just three words in.Strictly speaking, the ellipse is used to when something is missing or unfinished. Like when I quote “Four score and seven years ago…” and don’t finish the rest...

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Who's this guy?

"Mick" is Michael Campbell, a book designer, graphic artist and writer. His humor column, The Dumpster, closes every issue of Food & Spirits Magazine. Author of Are You Going To Eat That?, and the new 2017 book of seventy hilarious all new essays, Of Mice and Me.
A singer songwriter too. New CD My Turn Now is available now!