The spoken language is more fundamental than writing. Written English simply cannot provide all the nuances that come from volume, tone, vocal emphasis, pace, and whole palettes of nonverbal cues. That’s one of the reasons why many people find video more compelling than written text for online marketing messages.
Plain text is the bottom rung on the ladder of communication. The spoken word—including sound recordings—is a step above. Video and actual face-to-face conversation are still higher up. Over the centuries, however, the human race has devised a lot of clever strategies to pack more information into written language. Punctuation marks, for example, can signal shades of emotional meaning, can separate what is important from what is peripheral, and can mark shifting points of view. At the most basic, commas and periods mimic the natural pauses and emphasis of the spoken word.
But typography—the art and science of printed word forms—gives today’s writers a huge arsenal for emphasis effects, from subtle to dramatic. If you’re producing, editing, or supervising content published on your professional website, you need to be familiar with these techniques. Here, we’ve sorted them out into three handy broad categories of acceptability.
Accentuate the Positive
The common virtue of all the methods in this first category is that they are universally accepted as ways to add emphasis to online documents.
- Subheadings. If you write your web content on any of today’s leading word processors, you probably have made use of the various heading styles; Microsoft Word, for example, calls them Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and so on. In hypertext markup language, they are coded with special pieces of code, called tags, to mark where the special headline formatting begins and ends. When your website was originally set up, your coding team should have set the default appearance of all the headline styles to your specifications. Generally, Heading 1 is the largest, boldest typeface used on any of your pages, and will automatically be used for top-level page headlines. You will use Heading 2 the most often to break large blocks of text into easily digested sections. You will use Heading 3 rarely, and other Heading styles almost never.
One of the key advantages of using Heading styles is that Google and other search engines know to pay special attention to any text formatted with these styles, the better to make inferences about your intended audience. So witty and appropriate headings work to help attract your preferred clients.
- Boldface. Called the strong style in hypertext, boldface text is the primary way writers add emphasis and stress to their documents in imitation of speech. Search engines also reportedly pay special attention to bold text when they index web pages.
- Italics. Italicized words are less useful in adding emphasis to online text because italics are already reserved for several specific functions. As a rule, writers italicize foreign words and phrases, the names of books and periodicals, the names of vessels and vehicles, and the names of legal cases. Singles words, phrases, and sentences may be italicized when considered as collections of words, as an alternative to placing them in quotation marks. Some writers also use italics rather than quotation marks when reporting internal dialogue; for example: “As he fell off the ladder, Unlucky Jim thought, oh, no, not again!” Beyond those fixed uses, italics can be used for emphasis as long as it won’t cause confusion.
Raising the Yellow Caution Flag
Use these judiciously, never routinely.
- Underlining. In the ancient days of typewriters, before computers ruled the earth, underlined text was used for all the functions that we now assign to italics. Nowadays, underlined text is rarely used except to indicate a hyperlink to another web page. It’s acceptable to use underlining for emphasis, but that practice is very uncommon; writers should take a moment to assure themselves that they will not confuse readers if they choose to underline a word or passage.
- Uppercase. The practice of arbitrarily capitalizing words in order to make them stand out is completely unjustified; don’t do it. What we want to discuss in this paragraph is the practice of writing in all capital letters, something I like to call SHOUTY CAPS. There’s no doubt it calls attention to the emphasized text, but it becomes tedious to read in short order. Sometimes, SHOUTY CAPS can be the only option available to provide emphasis in document parts that do not accept hypertext tags, but elsewhere they should be used sparingly.
- Exclamation points. These can actually provide a subtler approach to emphasis than some of the other techniques we’ve discussed, because a reader won’t notice a major difference in the typeface by a casual glance. Exclamation marks are very rare in formal prose. Now, of course your business website is more casual than academic writing or news reporting, but overuse of exclamation points will be seen as fundamentally unserious. It should go without saying that double or triple exclamation points should never be used.
Avoid these tools for adding emphasis, because they do more harm than good.
- Asterisks. Placing text between *star symbols* is a throwback to the days before word processing programs could provide underlining or italics reliably. Today, that’s seen as eccentric and unprofessional.
- Quotation marks. Some people believe that enclosing something in quotation marks emphasizes that word or phrase. These people are wrong. When used that way, quotation marks actually suggest the literal meaning is unreliable. Consider: Mr. Smith was seen kissing his “wife” in public yesterday. Far from emphasizing the word “wife,” the quotation marks convince us that the relationship almost surely isn’t a marital one.
- Color, highlighting, and typefaces. Presumably, your website was constructed to reflect dignified good taste. When you start overriding the decisions for color and fonts within the text, you’re taking a step toward visual chaos.
- Mix ’em all up. Good gracious, no. Some website owners want eye-catching text across every piece posted. So the initial paragraph may be in boldface, the second in italics, and the third in underlined italics in a novel font. The result: a webpage that looks like it was designed by circus clowns. A good rule to guide you: If everything is emphasized, nothing is. Restraint is almost always the best course.
Do You Need a Typography Tune-Up?
Is the website for your legal practice, medical clinic, or other business failing to attract your ideal clients or customers? Could it be because the content you’re posting is more limp than limpid, more tired than inspired?
At Foster Web Marketing, we specialize in website content and custom e-books that express your viewpoint in a dynamic, engaging way to attract readers and make them want to be your customers. Whether your website needs just a light greasing of the gears or a total website overhaul, we’re the mechanics on duty RIGHT NOW (ooh, look, shouty caps!) and ready to look under the hood. Use the instant chat link on this page to get started.