Emphasis (typography)

Example of blackletter emphasis using the technique of changing fonts

In typography, emphasis is the exaggeration of words in a text with a font in a different style from the rest of the text—to emphasize them. It is the equivalent of prosodic stress in speech.

Methods and use

For other uses, see Bold (disambiguation).

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 and spacing as 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. 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 the use of oblique, where the vertical orientation of all letters 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 was used for marking passages that have a different context, such as words from foreign languages, book titles, and the like.

By contrast, an emboldened font weight makes text darker than the surrounding text. With this technique, the emphasized text strongly stands out from the rest; it should therefore be used to highlight certain keywords that are important to the subject of the text, for easy visual scanning of text. For example, printed dictionaries often use boldface for their keywords, and the names of entries can conventionally be marked in bold. If the publisher prefers not to use bold, or has already used it for another purpose, a second form of emphasis can be introduced by using a lightface or thin version of the main text font, although this is not very common.[1]

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 linespacing. It is still possible using some font superfamilies, 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 capitalisation 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 commonly today by British publishers, and usually only for book titles.

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

Culturally all-caps text has become an indication of shouting, for example when quoting speech. It was also once often used by American lawyers to indicate important points in a legal text.[2] While the practice, dating to the use of typewriters, became unnecessary with the arrival of computerised text formatting, it is still sometimes seen, especially in documents created by older lawyers.[3][4][5]

Letter spacing

Main article: letter-spacing
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.[6]

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 emphasised 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 letterspacing 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 letterspacing is sometimes seen as specific to German, although it has been used with other languages, including English.[7] 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.

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 letterspaced type. This practice for Cyrillic has become obsolete with the availability of Cyrillic italic and small capital fonts.[8]


Main article: Underline

Professional Western typesetting usually does not employ lines under letters for emphasis within running text, because it is considered too distracting. 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.[9]

Punctuation marks

Example of emphasis marks in Traditional Chinese, written vertically

In Chinese, emphasis in body text is supposed to be indicated by using an "emphasis mark" (着重號), 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.

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.


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.[10]

Post-print emphasis added by a reader is often done with highlighters which add a bright background color to usual black 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 capitalisation of key words.

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 the effect of italic or boldface be imitated by algorithmically altering the original font.

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."[11]


  1. 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."
  2. Butterick, Matthew. "All Caps". Practical Typography.
  3. "Why is your Contract YELLING AT YOU? All Caps in Contracts, Explained.". Shake Law. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  4. Butterick, Matthew. "Small caps". Practical Typography. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.0, page 32
  8. Charette, François (2010). "ArabXeTeX: an ArabTeX-like interface for typesetting languages in Arabic script with XeLaTeX" (PDF).
  9. Hudson, John (2003). "RED, WHITE & BLACK True colors?".
  10. Trask, Larry (1997). "Capital Letters".

External links

Look up boldface or Appendix:Boldface in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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