Emphasis (typography)

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Example of black letter emphasis using the technique of changing fonts Fraktur.png
Example of black letter emphasis using the technique of changing fonts

In typography, emphasis is the strengthening of words in a text with a font in a different style from the rest of the text, to highlight them. [1] It is the equivalent of prosody stress in speech.


Methods and use

Roman emphasis example Emphasis-typography-outline.svg
Roman emphasis example

The most common methods in Western typography fall under the general technique of emphasis through a change or modification of font: italics, boldface and small caps . Other methods include the alteration of LETTER CASE andspacingas well as color and *additional graphic marks*.

Font styles and variants

The human eye is very receptive to differences in "brightness within a text body." Therefore, one can differentiate between types of emphasis according to whether the emphasis changes the "blackness" of text, sometimes referred to as typographic color. A means of emphasis that does not have much effect on blackness is the use of italics , where the text is written in a script style, or oblique , where the vertical orientation of each letter of the text is slanted to the left or right. With one or the other of these techniques (usually only one is available for any typeface), words can be highlighted without making them stand out much from the rest of the text (inconspicuous stressing). This is used for marking passages that have a different context, such as book titles, words from foreign languages, or internal dialogue.

By contrast, a bold font weight makes letters of a text thicker than the surrounding text. [2] Bold strongly stands out from regular text, and is often used to highlight keywords important to the text's content. For example, printed dictionaries often use boldface for their keywords, and the names of entries can conventionally be marked in bold. [3]

Small capitals are also used for emphasis, especially for the first line of a section, sometimes accompanied by or instead of a drop cap, or for personal names as in bibliographies.

If the text body is typeset in a serif typeface, it is also possible to highlight words by setting them in a sans serif face. This practice is often considered archaic in Latin script, and on computers is complicated since fonts are no longer issued by foundries with a standard baseline, so switching font may distort line spacing. It is still possible using some font super families, which come with matching serif and sans-serif variants, though these are not generally supplied with modern computers as system fonts. In Japanese typography, due to the reduced legibility of heavier Minchō type, the practice remains common.

Of these methods, italics, small capitals and capitalization are oldest, with bold type and sans-serif typefaces not arriving until the nineteenth century.


The house styles of many publishers in the United States use all caps text for:

Capitalization is used much less frequently by British publishers, and usually only for book titles.

All-uppercase letters are a common substitute form of emphasis where the medium lacks support for boldface, such as old typewriters, plain-text email, SMS and other text-messaging systems.

Socially, the use of all-caps text in Roman languages has become an indicator of shouting when quoting speech. It was also often used in the past by American lawyers to flag important points in a legal text. [4] Coinciding with the era of typewriter use, the practice became unnecessary with the advent of computerized text formatting, although it is still found on occasion in documents created by older lawyers. [5] [6] [7]


An example of sperrsatz. Note wider spacing of the word gesperrt ("letterspaced"). Emphasis typography2.png
An example of sperrsatz. Note wider spacing of the word gesperrt ("letterspaced").

Another means of emphasis is to increase the spacing between the letters, rather than making them darker, but still achieving a distinction in blackness. This results in an effect reverse to boldface: the emphasized text becomes lighter than its environment. This is often used in blackletter typesetting and typewriter manuscripts, but by no means restricted to those situations. [8]

This letter-spacing is referred to as sperren in German, which could be translated as "spacing out": in typesetting with letters of lead, the spacing would be achieved by inserting additional non-printing slices of metal between the types, usually about an eighth of an em wide. On typewriters a full space was used between the letters of an emphasized word and also one before and one after the word.

For black letter type boldface was not feasible, since the letters were very dark in their standard format, and on (most) typewriters only a single type was available. Although letter-spacing was common, sometimes different typefaces (e.g. Schwabacher inside Fraktur), underlining or colored, usually red ink were used instead.

Since blackletter type remained in use in German speaking parts of Europe much longer than anywhere else, the custom of letter-spacing is sometimes seen as specific to German, although it has been used with other languages, including English. [9] Especially in German, however, this kind of emphasis may also be used within modern type, e.g. where italics already serve another semantic purpose (as in linguistics) and where no further means of emphasis (e.g. small caps) are easily available or feasible. Its professional use today is very limited in German. This use of spacing is also traditionally found in Polish. [10]

German orthographic (or rather typographic) rules require that the mandatory blackletter ligatures are retained. That means, ſt, ch, ck, and tz are still stuck together just as the letter ß , whereas optional, additional ligatures like ff and ſi are broken up with a (small) space in between. Other writing systems did not develop such sophisticated rules since spacing was so uncommon therein.

In Cyrillic typography, it also used to be common to emphasize words using letter-spaced type. This practice for Cyrillic has become obsolete with the availability of Cyrillic italic and small capital fonts. [11]


Professional Western typesetting usually does not employ lines under letters for emphasis within running text, because it is considered too distracting.[ citation needed ] Underlining is, however, often used with typewriters, in handwriting and with some non-alphabetic scripts. It is also used for secondary emphasis, i.e. marks added by the reader and not the author.


In Arabic, it is traditional to emphasize text by drawing a line over the letters. [12]

Punctuation marks

Example of emphasis marks in Traditional Chinese, written vertically Emphasis mark (vertical).png
Example of emphasis marks in Traditional Chinese, written vertically

Sometimes quotation marks are used for emphasis. However, this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks are properly used, particularly scare quotes, and can leave the reader with a different impression than intended. [13]

In Chinese, emphasis in body text is supposed to be indicated by using an "emphasis mark" (着重號/着重号), which is a dot placed under each character to be emphasized. This is still taught in schools but in practice it is not usually done, probably due to the difficulty of doing this using most computer software. Consequently, methods used for emphasis in Western text are often used instead, even though they are considered inappropriate for Chinese (for example, the use of underlining or setting text in oblique type).

In Japanese texts, when katakana would be inappropriate, emphasis is indicated by "emphasis dots" (圏点 or 傍点) placed above the kanji and any accompanying furigana in horizontal writing and to the right in vertical writing. Japanese also has an "emphasis line" (傍線) used in a similar manner, but less frequently.

In Korean texts, a dot is placed above each Hangul syllable block or Hanja to be emphasized. [14] [ clarification needed ]

In Armenian the շեշտ (šešt) sign ( ՛ ) is used.

In Internet usage, asterisks are sometimes used for emphasis (as in "That was *really* bad"). Less commonly, underscores may be used, resembling underlining ("That was _really_ bad"). These are seen on sites where input is restricted to plain text with no method to apply markup tags (e.g. <i> for italics, or <b> for boldface). In some cases, the engine behind the text area being parsed will render the text and the asterisks in bold automatically after the text is submitted.


Colors are important for emphasizing. Important words in a text may be colored differently from others. For example, many dictionaries use a different color for headwords, and some religious texts color the words of deities red, commonly referred to as rubric. In Ethiopic script, red is used analogously to italics in Latin text. [15]

Post-print emphasis added by a reader is often done with highlighters which add a bright background color to usual black-on-white text.


Shakespeare's play Othello, printed in 1623. Bold type had not yet been invented. Emphasis is provided by using italics, used for key words, stage directions and the names of characters, and capitalization of key words. Othello F1.jpg
Shakespeare's play Othello, printed in 1623. Bold type had not yet been invented. Emphasis is provided by using italics, used for key words, stage directions and the names of characters, and capitalization of key words.

There are many designs. With both italics and boldface, the emphasis is correctly achieved by swapping into a different font of the same family; for example by replacing body text in Arial with its bold or italic style. Professional typographic systems, including most modern computers, would therefore not simply tilt letters to the right to achieve italics (that is instead referred to as slanting or oblique), print them twice or darker for boldface, or scale majuscules to the height of middle-chamber minuscules (like x and o) for small-caps, but instead use entirely different typefaces that achieve the effect. The letter 'w', for example, looks quite different in italic compared to upright.

As a result, typefaces therefore have to be supplied at least fourfold (with computer systems, usually as four font files): as regular, bold, italic, and bold italic to provide for all combinations. Professional typefaces sometimes offer even more variations for popular fonts, with varying degrees of blackness. Only if such fonts are not available should[ citation needed ] the effect of italic or boldface be imitated by algorithmically altering the original font.

The modern Latin-alphabet system of fonts appearing in two standard weights, with the styles being regular (or "Roman"), italic, bold and bold italic is a relatively recent development, dating to the early twentieth century. Modern "Roman" type was developed around the 1470s, while italic type was developed around 1500 and was commonly used for emphasis by the early 17th century. Bold type did not arrive until the nineteenth century, and at first fonts did not have matching bold weights; instead a generic bold, sometimes a Clarendon or other kind of slab-serif, would be swapped in. [16] In some books printed before bold type existed, emphasis could be shown by switching to blackletter. [17] [18] Some font families intended for professional use in documents such as business reports may also make the bold-style numbers take up the same width as the regular (non-bold) numbers, so a bold-style total lines up below the digits of the sum in regular style. [19]

Recommendations and requirements

Linguistics professor Larry Trask stated that "It is possible to write an entire word or phrase in capital letters in order to emphasize it", but adds that "On the whole, though, it is preferable to express emphasis, not with capital letters, but with italics." [20] Many university researchers and academic journal editors advise not to use italics, or other approaches to emphasizing a word, unless essential, for example the Modern Language Association "discourages the use of italics in academic prose to emphasize or point, because they are unnecessary—most often, the unadorned words do the job without typographic assistance". [21] Although emphasis is useful in speech, and so has a place in informal or journalistic writing, in academic traditions it is often suggested that italics are only used where there is a danger of misunderstanding the meaning of the sentence, and even in that case that rewriting the sentence is preferable; in formal writing the reader is expected to interpret and understand the text themselves, without the assumption that the precise intended interpretation of the author is correct. Italics are principally used in academic writing for texts that have been referenced, and for foreign language words. Similarly capitals and underlining have particular meanings, and are rarely used in formal writing for emphasis.

Related Research Articles

Typography Art and the craft of printing and the arranging of layouts

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable and appealing when displayed. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point sizes, line lengths, line-spacing (leading), and letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space between pairs of letters (kerning). The term typography is also applied to the style, arrangement, and appearance of the letters, numbers, and symbols created by the process. Type design is a closely related craft, sometimes considered part of typography; most typographers do not design typefaces, and some type designers do not consider themselves typographers. Typography also may be used as an ornamental and decorative device, unrelated to the communication of information.

Palatino Typeface

Palatino is the name of an old-style serif typeface designed by Hermann Zapf, initially released in 1949 by the Stempel foundry and later by other companies, most notably the Mergenthaler Linotype Company.

In typography, a serif is a small line or stroke regularly attached to the end of a larger stroke in a letter or symbol within a particular font or family of fonts. A typeface or "font family" making use of serifs is called a serif typeface, and a typeface that does not include them is sans-serif. Some typography sources refer to sans-serif typefaces as "grotesque" or "Gothic", and serif typefaces as "roman".

Typeface Set of characters that share common design features

A typeface is the design of lettering that can include variations in size, weight, slope, width, and so on. Each of these variations of the typeface is a font.

Italic type Font style characterised by cursive typeface and slanted design

In typography, italic type is a cursive font based on a stylised form of calligraphic handwriting. Owing to the influence from calligraphy, italics normally slant slightly to the right. Italics are a way to emphasise key points in a printed text, to identify many types of creative works, to cite foreign words or phrases, or, when quoting a speaker, a way to show which words they stressed. One manual of English usage described italics as "the print equivalent of underlining"; in other words, underscore in a manuscript directs a typesetter to use italic.

An underscore, also called an underline, low line, or low dash, is a line drawn under a segment of text. In proofreading, underscoring is a convention that says "set this text in italic type", traditionally used on manuscript or typescript as an instruction to the printer. Its use to add emphasis in modern documents is a deprecated practice. The underscore character, _, originally appeared on the typewriter and was primarily used to emphasise words as in the proofreader's convention. To produce an underscored word, the word was typed, the typewriter carriage was moved back to the beginning of the word, and the word was overtyped with the underscore character.

Letter case Distinction between alphabetic letters in taller, "upper" case and shorter "lower" case

Letter case is the distinction between the letters that are in larger uppercase or capitals and smaller lowercase in the written representation of certain languages. The writing systems that distinguish between the upper and lowercase have two parallel sets of letters, with each letter in one set usually having an equivalent in the other set. The two case variants are alternative representations of the same letter: they have the same name and pronunciation and are treated identically when sorting in alphabetical order.

Matrix (printing)

In the manufacture of metal type used in letterpress printing, a matrix is the mould used to cast a letter, known as a sort. Matrices for printing types were made of copper.

Lucida Typeface family designed by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes in 1984

Lucida is an extended family of related typefaces designed by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes and released from 1984 onwards. The family is intended to be extremely legible when printed at small size or displayed on a low-resolution display – hence the name, from 'lucid'.

Small caps Lowercase characters that resemble uppercase letters except smaller in height

In typography, small caps are lowercase characters typeset with glyphs that resemble uppercase letters (capitals) but reduced in height and weight, close to the surrounding lowercase letters or text figures. This is technically not a case-transformation, but a substitution of glyphs, although the effect is often simulated by case-transformation and scaling. Small caps are used in running text as a form of emphasis that is less dominant than all uppercase text, and as a method of emphasis or distinctiveness for text alongside or instead of italics, or when boldface is inappropriate. For example, the text "Text in small caps" appears as Text in small caps in small caps. Small caps can be used to draw attention to the opening phrase or line of a new section of text, or to provide an additional style in a dictionary entry where many parts must be typographically differentiated.

Roman type

In Latin script typography, roman is one of the three main kinds of historical type, alongside blackletter and italic. Roman type was modelled from a European scribal manuscript style of the 15th century, based on the pairing of inscriptional capitals used in ancient Rome with Carolingian minuscules developed in the Holy Roman Empire.

Oblique type is a form of type that slants slightly to the right, used for the same purposes as italic type. Unlike italic type, however, it does not use different glyph shapes; it uses the same glyphs as roman type, except slanted. Oblique and italic type are technical terms to distinguish between the two ways of creating slanted font styles; oblique designs may be labelled italic by companies selling fonts or by computer programs. Oblique designs may also be called slanted or sloped roman styles. Oblique fonts, as supplied by a font designer, may be simply slanted, but this is often not the case: many have slight corrections made to them to give curves more consistent widths, so they retain the proportions of counters and the thick-and-thin quality of strokes from the regular design.

Font Particular size, weight and style of a typeface

In metal typesetting, a font was a particular size, weight and style of a typeface. Each font was a matched set of type, with a piece for each glyph, and a typeface consisting of a range of fonts that shared an overall design.

Clarendon (typeface) Slab-serif typeface

Clarendon is the name of a slab-serif typeface that was released in 1845 by Thorowgood and Co. of London, a letter foundry often known as the Fann Street Foundry. The original Clarendon design is credited to Robert Besley, a partner in the foundry, and was originally engraved by punchcutter Benjamin Fox, who may also have contributed to its design. Many copies, adaptations and revivals have been released, becoming almost an entire genre of type design.

History of Western typography

Modern typographers view typography as a craft with a very long history tracing its origins back to the first punches and dies used to make seals and coinage currency in ancient times. The basic elements of typography are at least as old as civilization and the earliest writing systems—a series of key developments that were eventually drawn together into one systematic craft. While woodblock printing and movable type had precedents in East Asia, typography in the Western world developed after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century. The initial spread of printing throughout Germany and Italy led to the enduring legacy and continued use of blackletter, Roman and italic types.

Sabon Serif typeface

Sabon is an old-style serif typeface designed by the German-born typographer and designer Jan Tschichold (1902–1974) in the period 1964–1967. It was released jointly by the Linotype, Monotype, and Stempel type foundries in 1967. The design of the roman is based on types by Claude Garamond, particularly a specimen printed by the Frankfurt printer Konrad Berner. Berner had married the widow of a fellow printer Jacques Sabon, the source of the face's name, who had bought some of Garamond's type after his death. The italics are based on types designed by a contemporary of Garamond's, Robert Granjon. It is effectively a Garamond revival, though a different name was chosen as many other modern typefaces already carry this name.

Joanna (typeface) Typeface designed by Eric Gill

Joanna is a serif typeface designed by Eric Gill (1882–1940) in the period 1930–31, and named for one of his daughters. Gill chose Joanna for setting An Essay on Typography, a book by Gill on his thoughts on typography, typesetting, and page design. He described it as "a book face free from all fancy business."

Deepdene (typeface)

Deepdene is a serif typeface designed by Frederic Goudy from 1927–1933. It belongs to the "old-style" of serif font design, with low contrast between strokes and an oblique axis. However, Deepdene has crisp serifs and a nearly upright italic, with much less of a slant than is normal for this style.

Arabic typography is the typography of letters, graphemes, characters or text in Arabic script, for example for writing Arabic, Persian, or Urdu. 16th century Arabic typography was a by-product of Latin typography with Syriac and Latin proportions and aesthetics. It lacked expertise in the three core aspects of Arabic writing: calligraphy, style and system. Calligraphy requires aesthetically skilled writing in a chosen canonical style such as naskh, nastaʿlīq or ruqʿah. System denotes the script grammar covering such rules as horizontality and stretching.


  1. Twyman, Michael. "The Bold Idea: The Use of Bold-looking Types in the Nineteenth Century". Journal of the Printing Historical Society. 22 (107–143).
  2. Bigelow, Charles; Holmes, Kris. "On Font Weight". Bigelow & Holmes. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  3. This technique may also be used to "deemphasise" text, as in the "Concordant Literal (Bible)" (OT, ISBN   0910424098; NT, ISBN   0910424144): "The type is large and readable, with boldface representing the actual English translation of the original Hebrew and Greek and lightface showing English words added for idiomatic clarity or to reflect grammatical significance."
  4. Butterick, Matthew. "All Caps". Practical Typography.
  5. "Why is your Contract YELLING AT YOU? All Caps in Contracts, Explained". Shake Law. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  6. Butterick, Matthew. "Small caps". Practical Typography. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  7. An example of an English translation of Russian original, with a non-typewriter font (i.e. variable-width letters) is in Eigeles, M. A., Kinetics of adhesion of mineral particles to air bubbles in flotation suspensions, Comptes Rendus (Doklady) de l'Académie des sciences de l'URSS, XXXIV(4), 340–344, 1939.
  8. Example: Schäfer EA, Canney EL, Tunstall JO. On the rhythm of muscular response to volitional impulses in man. The Journal of Physiology 1886;VII(2):111–117.
  9. Jak zaznaczyć emfazę?PWN
  10. Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.0, page 32
  11. Charette, François (2010). "ArabXeTeX: an ArabTeX-like interface for typesetting languages in Arabic script with XeLaTeX" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
  12. "The 'emphatic' use of quotation marks | Macmillan Dictionary Blog".
  13. "Hangul/Korean (draft)" . Retrieved 2 January 2020.
  14. Hudson, John (2003). "RED, WHITE & BLACK True colors?".
  15. Tracy, Walter. Letters of Credit. pp. 65–6. The other kind of secondary type, the related bold face, is a twentieth-century creation. Although the use of bold type for emphasis in text began when display advertising became a feature of the family magazines of the mid-nineteenth century, the bold types themselves were Clarendons, Ionics and Antiques quite unrelated to the old styles and moderns used for the text. As late as 1938 the Monotype Recorder, a distinguished British journal of typography, could say, "The 'related bold' is a comparatively new phenomenon in the history of type cutting."
  16. Mosley, James. "Comments on Typophile thread 'Where do bold typefaces come from?'". Typophile. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 16 December 2016. For the record, the Clarendon type of the Besley foundry is indeed the first type actually designed as a 'related bold' – that is, made to harmonize in design and align with the roman types it was set with. It was registered in Britain in 1845...but the idea of a 'bold face' goes back much further. Before the launch of Clarendon type printers picked out words in slab-serifs or any other heavy type. In the 18th century they used 'English' or 'Old English' types, which is why they became known as 'black letter'. John Smith says in his Printer's grammar (London, 1755). 'Black Letter ... is sometimes used ... to serve for matter which the Author would particularly enforce to the reader.'
  17. Frere-Jones, Tobias. "From The Collection: 012". Frere-Jones Type. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  18. "Gotham Numerics". Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
  19. Trask, Larry (1997). "Capital Letters".
  20. "Is it OK to italicize a word for emphasis in my paper? – the MLA Style Center".

Wiktionary-logo-en-v2.svg The dictionary definition of boldface at Wiktionary