The Functions of Boldface

By Mark Nichol

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Boldface type, which has a heavier weight than, meaning it is thicker than, roman type, is employed to provide emphasis but has a prescribed set of uses. This post outlines those uses.

In running text—the default wording in a piece of context, as opposed to display copy, which consists of headings, subheadings, captions, footnotes, sidebars, and other special text—boldface is appropriate only in certain circumstances. In printed and online publications, it is most often employed in educational contexts, where newly introduced terms may be bolded, or styled in boldface, to signal to a reader that such terms are key to understanding the topic under discussion.

For example, in textbooks, words introduced as new vocabulary are often formatted in boldface within the running text. At the beginning of each chapter or section, these words may be listed in a sidebar, and they may be defined in footnotes or in a glossary, or list of terms and definitions, at the end of the section or the book. In most other cases, using boldface in running text is an aesthetic choice, often for humorous effect or, for example, to represent shouting in a children’s storybook.

Display copy is often boldface to distinguish it from the running text, although such content is generally styled in a different font and in larger point sizes for that reason. Run-in subheads or sideheads—those that begin a paragraph or a section of type rather than appear on a line above it, and that are generally formatted the same point size as the rest of the paragraph or section—are often boldfaced to distinguish them from the narrative that follows. (Such subheads are, alternatively, often italicized.)

Punctuation following a run-in subhead, whether a period, a colon, or a dash, should also be boldface. And when, for example, glossary terms are boldfaced, if punctuation follows each term before the definitions, the punctuation should be boldfaced. This is also true for figure headings (where, for example, “Figure 1.” or “Figure 1:” precedes the title of the figure) and captions, where directional terms such as above or left may be boldfaced or where a run-in heading may precede a caption’s explanatory text.

However, in running text, punctuation that follows a boldfaced term, because it is associated with the surrounding text, not with the emphasized element, is not boldfaced. (This is true even if the boldfaced term is enclosed in parentheses or bracketed by a pair of commas or dashes.)

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7 Responses to “The Functions of Boldface”

  • Anne-Marie Shaffer

    I guess it’s too much to expect examples.

  • venqax

    Here is one. Probably doesn’t help.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have no idea what it means to “boldface” punctuation marks.
    Does that mean to suddenly put question marks in boldface ?

  • Dale A. Wood

    ? <– bold
    Or there is the question, "to bold or not to bold?", bolded, but with which question mark not bolded? <— this seems to be rather silly.
    I think that the question "Is there intelligent life on faraway planets?" is a crucial thing, and that the whole thing should be bolded.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Saying “Roman type” is ambiguous because there are several different kinds of styles of type that are called “Roman type”.
    “Roman”, “Times New Roman”, and so forth.
    Furthermore, someone might say something like “Roman type” to distinguish between the kinds of alphabets that are called Greek, Gothic, Russian (Cyrillic), Hebrew, Arabic, Cherokee, Cambodian, and so forth. I mentioned Cambodian because of something in the “Guinness Book of World Records”. Cambodian has 82 letters in its alphabet, including some that Don’t Mean Anything! Apparently, these are there just for decoration. 82 is astounding because we get along fine with just 26, or 52 counting upper case and lower case.
    Furthermore, WE use basic Roman type in English, but there are alphabetical languages that have extra letters, like French, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, and Spanish.
    A letter with a diacritical mark is an extra letter, and French and Polish have lots of those. German has three vowels with umlauts, plus a special letter for “ss”. In Dutch “ij” is considered to be a separate letter, and Dutch typewriters even come with it. Nordic languages have umlauts, and also that “O” with a slash through it. In Spanish, “ll” is considered to be a separate letter, and there is the “n” with a tilde on it. These are extra letters in a Spanish-language typewriter.
    From this point of view, you can’t say that the Dutch language uses the Roman alphabet because it uses the Dutch alphabet and Dutch type. There are even names like “Ijsselmeer” or “IJsselmeer”, where that first letter is the capitalized version. Else, take words like “Meijer”, spelled “Meyer” in English and German, and many other ways, too, including {Meier, Meir, Myer, Myers}.
    A former Prime Minister of Israel and her husband settled on “Meir” after some consideration.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Even the English alphabet is not exactly Roman because we have some letters that the Romans did not have: { j, J, v, V, w, W} .
    Also, the letter “y” is rare in German, and it does not appear at the ends of words except in loanwords like “Whiskey”. It is also replaced at the beginnings of words like Jemen, Jugoslavia, spelling these like Johannesburg, Erica Jung, and jungend (boy).
    I don’t know what they do with Yalu, Yangtze, Yankee, Yellowstone National Park, Yin/Yang, Yogi, York, and Chinese Yung.
    LOL – maybe this has something to do with why Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo lived in Jellystone Park!

  • Dale A. Wood

    The word “Yankee” comes from the Dutch name “Jan Kees”. Apparently, this is a name for the proverbial Dutchman**, just like “John Smith” and “Uncle Sam” are proverbial Americans, “John Bull” is a proverbial Englishman, “John Johnson” is a proverbial Swede, and “Ivan Ivanovich” is a proverbial Russian. By the way, “Ivan Ivanovich” = “John Johnson” = “Johann Johannssohn”.
    As for Mexicans, I guess that “Juan Gonzalez” would do.
    Who is the proverbial Frenchman? “Jean Jensen?”
    A proverbial German: maybe “Johann Schmidt” !
    **A settler along the Hudson River Valley, too, where they ended up with plenty of Yankees.

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