Doormen, French maids, and policemen

by Dirk E. Oldman

Today I’m going to talk about this.

Did you just try to click on that? Psych! I’m talking about underlining.

I’m also going to talk about this. And this. But one thing at a time.

If you’re above a certain age, you probably learned that the way to convey emphasis is to underline words. You may even have learned it if you’re under a certain age – if you learned to do it when writing on paper.

I’m going to be square with you. Underlining is a relic of a bygone era. It’s like a uniform with smart braiding on the shoulders and caps and all that. Once upon a time, that meant that the person was important. Now it means the person is a doorman. (Or is at a fancy dress ball or fetish party.)

So once upon a time, underlining was how you signalled to your publisher – or to your reader, if you were presenting a typed or handwritten manuscript – that something was important, just like once upon a time, if someone was in the lobby of a hotel dressed in a uniform with braiding and a cap, everyone would assume he was someone important. Now they assume he’s a doorman. Just like they assume underlined text is a link – it’s holding a door to a new site. (Tell the truth. Don’t you reflexively feel like you’re supposed to click on every word I underline?)

OK, so how about italics? They’re what underlining is supposed to stand in for. They’re pretty good for emphasis.

Yup. I use them myself, obviously. But italics are the French maid outfits of typography. If you’re at a costume or fetish party, the French maid outfit catches your attention. It means “check this out.” But sometimes someone in a French maid outfit is just a maid, there to serve and to tidy but not really for fun. (Real life, alas, is not a French farce.)

Italics, you see, are used for more than just emphasis. They’re used to introduce technical terms sometimes (“This is called frottage”). They’re used as an official requirement for things like bacteria names (“That guy is like a huge E. coli”). They’re used in linguistics texts to indicate when you’re referring to a word form as a specific word form, not as what it signifies (“Now, with regard to the word wee-wee…”). They’re used for book and magazine titles (“Do you have the latest Playboy?”). In short, they’re frilly little servants, not always intrinsically more important or interesting.

They also can be hard to read. A little bit of them is OK, but too much and you tire out. Same with French maids at fetish parties. Why don’t you take my word on that one.

So how about bolding? That’s pretty clear and effective. It just jumps off the page at you, and it’s not the kind of shouting fit that ALL CAPS is.

Yup. Bold is like a policeman uniform. It’s arresting. But it makes promises you’d better be prepared to keep. In real life, if you’re dressed like a policeman, you’d better be a policeman; in a party, if you’re dressed like one, you’d better be handy with the handcuffs. And in text, if you’re going to bold something, it had better be damn important, because it’s arriving with the sirens on. You don’t want to see a sentence that’s loaded with bolding on almost literally half the words. Unless you’re Dave Barry, who is funny. And even he uses it selectively.

In fact, with emphasis in general, whether it’s bold or italic (just don’t use underline, with rare exceptions), this is important: don’t overuse it. Pick out just the real key points. You can actually guide the reader’s eye down the page with bolding in the right places. If you’re lost somewhere, you look for a policeman, and he’ll show you where to go. But if you bold too much, it’s just messy and loses its effectiveness. And if you italicize too much, you’ll just seem excitable. Or maybe the reader will think you’re a little overfond of frilly things.

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