Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.

Letís say youíre 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 theyíre 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 pointís 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 have 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 youíre left with in your toolbox of emphasis is italics, bolding, punctuation, conjunctions, extra verbs, interjections, and placement. Hey, thatís 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 donít always play nicely on the Internet for certain fonts and dpi. If you want all of your Internet readers to get your meaning, youíll 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. Itís not too likely that there will be a flurry of these callouts, so itís 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 donít believe the reader is likely to confuse a figure callout for typed text.


Punctuation is often the most elegant way to emphasize something, but youíve got to be careful to use punctuation correctly. If you donít, your meaning could be blurred instead of emphasized.


Some people put periods after fragments to force the readerís attention to the fragment or the sentiment expressed in the previous sentence. Like this. Itís not good grammar, but it certainly works. Just donít 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 donít approve. I think question marks make the reader doubt subconsciously that the writer knows all the answers, and thatís not good. You can get away with a question mark when itís 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 isnít inadvertently put into the ďthrow-awayĒ part of the sentence. Donít, 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 youíve 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 isnít 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 itís not a strong method of emphasis.


Em-dashes emphasize because they provide breathless interruption. Be careful not to overuse them, though, or youíll 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 appear more like unfinished thoughts than marks of emphasis. Unless youíre 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 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 wonít 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, youíre presupposing that the reader read the previous paragraph, and I donít think you can insist. So donít do it, okay?


You can use an extra verb, like ďdoes,Ē in a sentence to provide emphasis, although this doesnít always work as well as youíd hope.


It certainly does look like rain.

It certainly looks like rain.


Thereís 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 isnít necessary.


An interjection is a word like ďhey,Ē ďoh,Ē ďso,Ē or ďwowĒ that you use to get attention. Itís 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. Donít use italics here, bold there, and underlining or something silly somewhere else.


Oh, a note about underlining. You canít really use underlining to provide emphasis anymore because people think of underlines as representing Internet or e-mail addresses.


You also canít 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 youíre using in some way that wonít have an immediately recognizable meaning. If you want to point out that the button is blue, DONíT use quotation marks.


Yes, that was me shouting