(Original post: http://blogs.officezealot.com/spiller/archive/2005/02/25/4216.aspx)

Let’s say you’re writing along and you come up against the need to emphasize something, but you know that your publication frowns on exclamation points or all capital letters. What do you do?


First, let me address why many publications frown on exclamation points and all capital letters. Exclamation points invite a subtle impression that things are fun. In a serious publication, like a how-to book or a marketing blurb on technology, exclamation points make both the author and the product look a little like they’re easily fooled or inclined to be silly. There was probably a time when you could use an exclamation point, but marketing to grade-school children has diminished the exclamation point’s usefulness in non-marketing and high-tech marketing efforts. Now they read like an excess of enthusiasm and you have to be frugal with them.


All capital letters used to be a perfectly good way to emphasize something, but, in my opinion, the prevalence of e-mail and the use of all caps by boors who shout has eliminated this as a possibility. Yes, some of those boors are just saving themselves the occasional keystroke to capitalize initial letters, but it does come off as shouting.


All you’re left with in your toolbox of emphasis is italics, bolding, punctuation, conjunctions, extra verbs, interjections, and placement. Hey, that’s a lot of options!


You can use italics in many publications because the very shape of the letters implies that they should be read more loudly. But italics don’t always play nicely on the Internet for certain fonts and dpi. If you want all of your Internet readers to get your meaning, you’ll need to find another method.


You can use bolding for emphasis in most cases, unless your publication has some strict limitation for bold. One magazine for whom I freelance uses bold to highlight figure and table callouts in text. It’s not too likely that there will be a flurry of these callouts, so it’s easy enough to bold a new term, a term that is critical to the understanding of the rest of the text, or text that should be typed into a field. I don’t believe the reader is likely to confuse a figure callout for typed text.


Punctuation is often the most elegant way to emphasize something, but you’ve got to be careful to use punctuation correctly. If you don’t, your meaning could be blurred instead of emphasized.


Some people put periods after fragments to force the reader’s attention to the fragment or the sentiment expressed in the previous sentence. Like this. It’s not good grammar, but it certainly works. Just don’t do it often.


Question marks can be used to emphasize the following paragraph. Some people like to use question marks as part of developing a thesis, but I don’t approve. I think question marks make the reader doubt subconsciously that the writer knows all the answers, and that’s not good. You can get away with a question mark when it’s entirely rhetorical or when the questioning voice is deliberately jarring, but otherwise, I think they emphasize insecurity rather than the text. .


If you offset a phrase by commas, you have to be careful that the important bit of the sentence isn’t inadvertently put into the “throw-away” part of the sentence. Don’t, for instance, put the important part of the sentence in a prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence because prepositional phrases only add direction to the important parts of the sentence and are entirely optional. You should also take a look at whether you’ve surrounded the emphasized bit with commas, in which case it will look like optional information rather than important information. A pair of commas can work just like parentheses and signify that the offset text isn’t as important to the meaning as the non-offset variety.


If you use parentheses, you indicate that the text within is entirely optional, so these little guys are not a good way to emphasize text. I suppose they are a way of de-emphasizing text, which implies that the emphasis is on the other part, but it’s not a strong method of emphasis.


Em-dashes emphasize because they provide breathless interruption. Be careful not to overuse them, though, or you’ll come off like an out-of-shape aerobics instructor. If you use two of them in the same sentence, the part between the two em-dashes will seem optional, so you probably just want one em-dash to point to the important bit.


You can use ellipses to point attention, but they probably come off more like unfinished thoughts than marks of emphasis. Unless you’re writing poetry. Then ellipses leave the voice up in the air a little bit, providing emphasis for what ever follows.


You can use a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence to emphasize how the following sentence relates to the first. But please be careful not to start paragraphs with conjunctions. Paragraphs should contain discrete chunks of information. If you want to connect one paragraph chunk to another, a conjunction won’t do it because conjunctions are meant to be used mid-sentence. You can occasionally (you have my permission) use conjunctions to start a sentence, but I do not give permission to start a new paragraph that way. The first sentence should at least vaguely tell you what the rest of the sentences in the paragraph are about. If you start with a conjunction, you’re presupposing that the reader read the previous paragraph, and I don’t think you can insist. So don’t do it, okay?


You can use an extra verb, like “does,” in a sentence to provide emphasis, although this doesn’t always work as well as you’d hope.


It certainly does look like rain.

It certainly looks like rain.


There’s not a lot of difference there, except in the first one, the sentence is clearly confirming a previous sentence that suggested the possibility of rain. For the most part, this extra verb isn’t necessary.


An interjection is a word like “hey,” “oh,” “so,” or “wow” that you use to get attention. It’s not typically appropriate in high-tech writing, but you can use it, as I did earlier (fourth paragraph, above), in less formal work.


Placement is important for emphasis whether you use any of these other devices or not. The first sentence of a piece is important, of course, but it is the last sentence that rings in the ears of your readers. The last sentence of each paragraph is the one that provides either the true content (the point, the tip, or the key information) or it points to the next paragraph.


If you examine most well-written technical pieces, you can see that the salient bits are emphasized using one or more of these methods. The important thing to do is to be consistent about it. Don’t use italics here, bold there, and underlining or something silly somewhere else.


Oh, a note about underlining. You can’t really use underlining to provide emphasis anymore because people think of underlines as representing Internet or e-mail addresses.


You also can’t use quotation marks. Really. Quotation marks are for quotations, dialog, and coined words. A coined word is one that you make up to suit a situation or that you’re using in some way that won’t have an immediately recognizable meaning. If you want to point out that the button is blue, DON’T use quotation marks.


Yes, that was me shouting


You can find these blogs, a little information about my editorial services and me, and a collection of pages about my “real” life on my Web site, www.MelanieSpiller.com.

Posted: February 25th, 2005, 11:44pm CET by Melanie Spiller

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