Emphasis

Looking to call attention to a particular word? The English language has given us many linguistic tools to do just that, and here are a few of them:

Writers can use one of our many useful adjectives to modify a noun. This will call attention not only to the adjective (“useful”) but to the word being modified (“adjective”). If we like, We can even percussively pile on these useful, flowery, positively purple adjectives. Or adverbs. (“Gratuitously”.) But the dogpile-on-the-modifier technique stops working where the writing starts becoming breathlessly, passionately overwrought and dangerously romantic.

Word order can also be used to top-load a paragraph. However, putting the urgent words first can come at the expense of readability, and can bring on the justly-misaligned passive voice. So what else is there?

We can repeat our point, making certain that the reader will not miss the point we’re repeating. But this, too, can lose the reader.

Foreshadowing is a much subtler way to repeat stuff. Rather than repeating ourselves to drum the point into the reader, perhaps we can hint at the whatever-it-is obliquely, early on. This primes the reader to view the thing being shadowed at the fore as inevitable, when it finally happens. This works particularly well in fiction (or lies). But if it’s overused, or used with too heavy a hand, the work becomes a too polished and what folk musicians call “overproduced”. However, there are some writers who are masters of heavily foreshadowing a story in a ragged, “accidental” way. These techniques work best when they’re used carefully and with a light hand.

However, some writers don’t have this level of skill–and some do, but don’t have the time or energy. For them, we have another solution: to use typography. You can bold words, set them in all capital letters, or maybe use italics (that’s the “sophisticated” way). Or, in extreme cases, all three.

This is the rough equivalent of circling text with a big red marker and then permanently attaching a spotlight to the page, aimed at the words the writer deems important. (Sometimes, there’s also a monkey crashing two cymbals together.) Outside of white papers and web pages (where headings and highlighting are expected and useful), all this can be a little insulting to the readers: It assumes they won’t read carefully, and it invites skimming.

Drummer Phil Collins was once told in the studio to not use the cymbals. Combined with some studio treatment, the result was the staccato drum sound on the Peter Gabriel song “Intruder”. This was one of the techniques he used for decades as his signature sound.

I grudgingly admit that there are times when using bold type in running text (i.e., not in a chapter or section title) is the best and simplest way to make a point. Some text needs to be skimmable–like textbooks, workbooks, liner notes, thesauri. There are even uses for all capital letters from time to time, provided this is done rarely. (Another writer would italicize “rarely”.) And italicized text is great for book titles, even though (in practice) italics often show what a character is thinking, or words in a foreign language. But when a lot of text is bold, or in all-caps–or whatever–the reader gets used to it and it loses its effect.

When everything is emphasized, nothing is.

So please, concentrate on crafting the words and use formatting sparingly. If at all.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides a mean bicycle, and he paints with oils when the mood strikes him.

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4 thoughts on “Emphasis

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    1. I had one of those for a while, I almost never missed the Capslock key. Although a couple of people asked me about it, incredulous that the key was missing. “What do you need it?” I asked, and got no answer.

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