Emphasis, Only When Necessary – Carolyn R. Wilker

There was once a writer who emphasized so many words in his text that it felt as though he was screaming at readers. His message was full of capital letters, underlines and italics, and so nothing important stood out, not even the writing. I closed the book and put it away, but I didn’t throw it out; I used it as examples in my teaching of what not to do when writing.

On the Everything2 website is this quote: In “writing conventions, (including MLA Style), when a writer wishes to emphasize a particular word or phrase within quoted text, (s)he can use an offset font (usually italics), underlining, or bolding, proceeded by the phrase ‘[emphasis added]’ within square brackets.”

When to use italics


If I’m using a word from another language that my reader may not know, I will put that word in italics on first use. When I write to someone whose first language is German, I might say danke. Beverly Lewis, who writes fiction about the Amish, uses words from German and Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, but in a context that the reader understands. Italics are also properly used in setting apart the name of a book or movie titles in text. Italics are also used for the name of a plant genus in a science text.

When to use upper case

letters of the alphabet(1)

Names of people, such as Sally, Doris and Inna, merit capital letters (upper case) as do the Queen and John Doe and his position, Member of Parliament. The city you name in a book or address needs capital letters, but if you were to PUT EVERYTHING IN CAPS, there would be a lot of angry people because it looks like someone is shouting. So use capital letters only when appropriate.

When to use exclamation marks

excclamation mark(1)

If someone yells “Fire!” what do you do? Do you get out of the building as fast as you can? If a character in your book yells, “Run!” you know there’s danger. Or when a parent yells “Stop!” when a young child is about to run across a busy road? Those are valid times to use an exclamation mark.

One exclamation mark will suffice—even in an emergency situation. Repeated use of the mark in an email or short piece of writing is unnecessary. Instead of drawing importance to something, you’re actually driving readers away from your message, no matter how important it was.

In the article “Are Exclamation Points Acceptable in Professional Correspondence?” on NJBIZ, Johnathan Jaffe wrote, “Adding exclamation points is like putting lipstick on your prose. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and everyone knows it isn’t real.” He wrote in an exclamation-free email, “Rather than using a string of endless exclamation points, use vivid language that gets your point across and shows you took the time to think up the ideal words.” Etiquette experts say to use them with restraint.

Extreme Emphasis

This is how Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote looks in extreme emphasis:“A woman is like a Tea Bag; you never know how Strong she is until you put her in hot water!!”

The additional emphasis only takes away from the writer’s intent. The author wrote it this way:
“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Carefully crafted writing with just the right words will get the message across. In articles, stories and email messages, do your readers a favour and save the emphasis for when it is really needed. Your readers will love you for it.
Carolyn WilkerCarolyn Wilker is an editor, storyteller, and author of Once Upon a Sandbox. She is a member of Inscribe, The Word Guild and Editors’ Association of Canada. She loves to take photographs of people, places and things. Grandkids are among those people.


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  1. Tracy Krauss says:

    These are all excellent points, Carol!!! I see this A LOT in my students’ writing! They like to use capitals where they should not and then forget to capitalize simple things like names or at the beginning of a sentence. (These are Grade 11 students!)

    (I threw those extra ‘!’ and CAPITALS in just for fun.)

  2. Bobbi Junior says:

    Oh gosh, Carolyn. I wish I could share this with the powers where I work. We do a lot of Program Development presentations. Bold, Caps, Underlines, Italics… I try to delete them as subtly as I can.

    I have a question, though. Here’s the sentence. “I went to the City Planning Department to get a building permit.” “I’d never been to the City Planner’s office before.”

    Are those capitals appropriate? One editor says that if ‘the’ precedes something, the capitals are dropped. What’s your opinion?

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