How to Add Emphasis to Your Writing

By Mark Nichol

Some people consider italics and boldface type — and quotation marks, when they’re used other than as dialogue markers — to be just so many noisy bells and whistles. They often are, when they’re misused, but when they’re employed correctly and strategically, they send strong signals. The following rules apply primarily for books and magazines.

1. Italics

Italics, based on handwriting script, serve several functions.

They identify the titles of stand-alone creative works like books, films and television series, and paintings. But parts of compositions — chapters, episodes of TV shows, short poems collected into anthologies, and the like — are enclosed in quotation marks.

They denote a word that would be stressed if spoken: “Stop the car — I really have to go to the bathroom.”

They indicate a word being introduced as itself, not as an idea: “Write, right, and rite are all pronounced identically.” Terms of more than one word are often enclosed in quotation marks, but this format may look awkward when used inconsistently alongside single italicized words, so self-referring phrases are often italicized as well (“it’s rank and file, not rank in file”).

They also identify letters used as such: “The letter n on that sign is backward.”

But letters compared to shapes (“turn right at the Y in the road”; “I watched a graceful V of geese fly overhead”) are set in roman type. (The lowercase term roman refers to the default type style.) The same is true for names of letters used in expressions (“dot your i’s and cross your t’s”).

They signal the use of an unfamiliar foreign term: “The Roman legatus was the equivalent of a general in a modern army.”

Note, however, that many words you might think are foreign have been adopted into English, that most welcoming of languages. Check your dictionary’s main section (not the foreign-words appendix); if a foreign term appears there, no italics are necessary. Also, foreign proper nouns need no emphasis.

The rule of thumb for repetition of foreign terms is to italicize on first reference only, and leave them in roman type when they recur. Use your judgment, though, depending on the frequency and interval of recurrence.

2. Boldface

Boldface lettering is best reserved for display type (chapter and section titles and the like). But they’re often used in textbooks and other learning materials to emphasize newly introduced terms, such as those that would appear in a glossary or be on a vocabulary quiz. Otherwise, this type style is the printed or posted equivalent of shouting.

3. Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are often used as what are called scare quotes — emphasis markers that communicate novelty, irony, or a nontraditional use of a word or phrase. Writers overuse scare quotes. Except in special cases, they should trust readers to understand the unusual use of a word or phrase.

The context in “I played dumb,” for example, precludes the need for a visual hint to the reader that the writer’s stupidity was an act, but “I had a ‘fit’ so she’d go away” may need a subtle clue that the tantrum was feigned. (Fit appears in single, not double, quotation marks here because they’re used within double quotes.)

Newspapers traditionally omit emphasis because formatting it is time consuming, and many web sites have the same policy, but the many exceptions in both cases — or using quotation marks in place of italics, as often seen on this site — acknowledge that italics and judicious use of boldface and scare quotes aid comprehension. Just don’t have a fit and go “overboard.”

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12 Responses to “How to Add Emphasis to Your Writing”

  • Cecily

    You say your guidelines are for books and magazines, but those labels cover a huge range of content styles and readership. For example, what is appropriate in a novel is not the same as what is suitable for an instruction manual.

    In general, I would, like you, advise minimal use of italics, bold, quotes and upper case in fiction, but I would be far more flexible with other types of book or magazine.

    Incidentally, I’m surprised you didn’t mention upper case and underlining, both of which slow reading and reduce comprehension. (They are primarily artefacts of typewriters that couldn’t do bold or italic.)

    Personally, I think upper case is more akin to shouting than boldface is and that the former should be used much more sparingly than the latter.

  • Rebecca

    I agree with Cecily, what may be appropriate for fiction may not be appropriate for an instruction or technical manual. What about emails? Typing an email in all capital letters implies shouting at the recipient. I think writers must know how and where to put the emphasis in their writing.

  • Mark Nichol

    Cecily:

    Thanks for your note. Yes, fiction and nonfiction — and their variations — call for different degrees of rigor in use of emphasis, but let me emphasize, so to speak, that I have only so much space to discuss the topic in general terms; I plan to cover some of the nuances you mention in subsequent posts.

    I omitted discussion of typewriter-era emphasis because, though I bridge that era and this one, access to the emphatic tools of word-processing programs renders underlining obsolete.

    And for those who haven’t yet received the memo, ALL-CAPS SHOULD BE USED ONLY TO INDICATE THAT THE WRITER DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO OPERATE THE CAPS LOCK BUTTON OR IS DERANGED.

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that extensive use of boldface is akin not to shouting but rather to a pedantic or boorish voice amplification.

  • Bradlee the Dawg

    I don’t agree with the “scare quote” section. The magazine I work for is very spare on any special emphasis. The editor-in-chief believes keeping the text clean makes the magazine more readable. But it’s a specialty/technical publication, with a lot of trade jargon that overlaps the “King’s English.”. As a reader, I want the scare quotes, the italics… even the bold and ALL CAPS when they’re appropriate. I don’t want to have to figure out that “cripples” are a class of framing materials, not a politically incorrect shout-out to the disabled.

  • Kathryn

    I’ll confess, scare quotes (a name I hadn’t heard before) are one of my pet peeves. Putting quotation marks around a word or phrase when you are not in fact quoting from someone else makes it appear that you don’t really think it is a legitimate word or phrase–or that you think it doesn’t really apply in this instance. The problem has been compounded by the tendency of the undereducated to sprinkle quotation marks throughout written work, so that now even arguably legitimate uses of them make me cringe. In a specialty or technical publication such as Bradlee describes, adopting the convention of using boldface (or my favorite–small caps) for trade jargon looks much more professional to my eyes.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mr. Dawg:

    Of course, exceptions can be made for specialized content. But you can just as easily gloss, or define, “cripple studs” (enclosed here in quotation marks — in the absence of italics capability in a comment field — to designate the reference to the term, not the materials themselves) for the layperson on the first reference:

    “Cripple studs, framing components used over or under a door, window, or other opening, are cut to length depending on the size of the aperture.”

    However, some publications italicize defined terms. Or, for a professional audience, introduce the unadorned term without concern about misunderstanding.

    By the way, the scare quotes around “King’s English” in your comment are superfluous. Your use of this clever appellation for standard language is a crowning achievement that stands on its own merits.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    Yes, especially now that the custom of brandishing air quotes (gesturing with one’s upraised wiggling fingertips to figuratively attach emphasis to a spoken word or phrase) are part of the pop-culture vocabulary, scare quotes are by default often assumed to signal a pejorative or leadenly ironic usage. As I’ve mentioned, italics can be employed for a defined term on first reference, but it often is a lazy writer who can’t, or won’t, devise a way to construct emphasis without relying on scare quotes.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rebecca:

    Agreed. And don’t get me started about emails. (I’ll get to that topic someday.)

  • Garrison

    What an interesting article. Over the years I have noted the increasing use of quotes and bold type to, in effect, tell the reader what they should think or feel. These are useful to the reader because they reveal the slant or bias of the writer in a fairly direct way.

    How much better it is to write logically and compellingly using paragraph and sentence structure to convince the reader of a point and allow them to draw their own conclusions about the material. Granted, this generally takes more print to accomplish and today brevity is of greater value than subtlety.

    Your point is well made, however, that the judicious use of emphasis can, like a printed sotto voce, succinctly add a layer of meaning to the written word.

    Thanks for a great article.

  • Peter

    Putting quotation marks around a word or phrase when you are not in fact quoting from someone else

    But of course that is exactly what you are doing in the use of scare quotes. You’re not quoting a specific person, necessarily, but it indicates that this word/phrase is what “people use” for this concept…it doesn’t necessarily imply that the usage is incorrect, as you seem to be assuming (though it can do that, of course). On the other hand, the use of scare quotes in a technical publication would be a bit odd…the audience should be assumed to understand the jargon in the field they’re reading about, so there’s no need for scare quotes (unless you’re introducing jargon from some unrelated field for some reason, or something).

  • Peter

    I think we are actually saying the same thing, although we seem to have drawn different conclusions. If you have to put it into quotation marks because (unspecified) people use it for this concept, you are saying that you would not, yourself, use it for that purpose; otherwise, every word in every sentence would need to be enclosed in quotation marks. And if you would not yourself use it for the concept, to me the implication is that you question the validity of its usage. To me, scare quotes are the symbol equivalent of “so-called,” a phrase that also bugs the heck out of me.

  • Mike Cloutier

    Having worked most of my life in newspapers, one of the golden rules is to use quotation marks only around words that were actually uttered by a speaker or a writer, never simply as a way to emphasize. There are many times when a quoted word or phrase will provide the needed emphasis, but they always must have been said or written by someone else.

    A strong writer will avoid use of type styles for emphasis. Writing is about the language. There are uses for italics and boldface, but these should be reserved to enhance the readability and design of the final document. Sometimes type style emphasis is useful, but should be used very sparingly.

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