#72 Boldface & Italic…just like the Italic Tower of Pisa

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AmperArt Boldface & Italic

#72 Boldface & Italic
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#72 Boldface & Italic is about the two most common text variations in publishing—both used too much & too wrong.

Some writ­ers—let’s call them over­em­pha­siz­ers—just can’t get enough boldface & italic. If they feel strongly about the point they’re mak­ing, they won’t hes­i­tate to run the whole para­graph in bold type. Don’t be one of these peo­ple. This habit wears down your read­ers’ retinas & their pa­tience. It also gives you nowhere to go when you need to em­pha­size a word. (See what I mean? Didn’t you hate reading this paragraph set in boldface—and now italic?)

That’s no prob­lem for overem­pha­siz­ers, though, who re­sort to un­der­lin­ing bold text or us­ing bold italic. These are both bad ideas.

(The two paragraphs above, set in boldface & italic, are from Butterick’s Practical Typography. It is so well-stated—quite humorously & sadly true—about overemphasizers, many of whom I’ve encountered as overzealous clients, I couldn’t help but just reprint it nearly verbatim. More from Butterick’s below.)

Boldface & italic treatments are somewhat interchangeable, but they really do each have their own flavor of emphasis or character. Other variations for type are caps & small caps, but that’ll be the theme for another AmperArt installment.

Text that is nei­ther bold nor italic is called ro­man.

Roman? The Tower of Pisa seems to be italicized, doesn’t it? Oh—it’s in Pisa, not Rome.

Italic Tower of Pisa

Italic Tower of Pisa

Where to use boldface & italic

Boldface is great for subheads or anywhere you need to attract the eye.

Italics should be used for book titles, long poems, plays, television shows and films, artworks & song titles; titles of newspapers, journals, magazines & radio series; names of ships & airplanes; specific editions of sacred texts; legal cases.

For­eign words used in Eng­lish are some­times ital­i­cized, some­times not, de­pend­ing on how com­mon they are. For in­stance, you would ital­i­cize your zuppa Toscana & sfogliatelle, but not your lasagna & cannoli.

But that’s not all.

The Frugal Editor

For a complete list on how to properly apply boldface & italic, as well as a comprehensive reference for all other editing rules and tips, pick up a copy of Carolyn Howard Johnson’s The Frugal Editor, available at Amazon.com.

This book will save you hundreds of dollars in editing fees—& thousands if you do your own editing & you want to make sure everything is spot-on perfect before ink hits paper without any typos in the printed publications.

The Frugal Editor is worth every frugal penny you spend on it. The cover design is brilliant, too.

2 rules for boldface & italic

According to & paraphrased from Butterick’s Practical Typography (a free online guide):

Boldface or italic—al­ways think of them as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. That is the first rule. (So much for the title of this AmperArt piece, Boldface & Italic.)

The sec­ond rule is to use boldface & italic as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. They are tools for em­pha­sis. But if every­thing is em­pha­sized, then noth­ing is em­pha­sized. Also, be­cause boldface & italic styles are de­signed to con­trast with reg­u­lar ro­man text, they’re some­what harder to read. Like ALL CAPS, boldface & italic are fine for short stretches of text, but not for long ones.

Some fonts have both a bold style and a semi­bold style. And some have styles that are heav­ier than bold, like black or ul­tra. These weights are usu­ally in­tended for large sizes (for in­stance, head­lines) and don’t work well at the size range of most body text.

Boldface & italic also means boldface & italic

For those of you who just can’t inject enough emphasis into your elegant prose, there’s the other meaning of boldface & italic:

Set the text in a font that is both boldface & italic, such as this.

But let’s not stop there.


You might be exclaiming, “Add more exclamation points!” That’s where I draw the line. I never use more than one. As soon as I see multiple exclamation points after a sentence I automatically place the writer in amateur league. If a piece is written well, you don’t need any. Bill Bernbach, whose agency created the innovative VW ads in in the ’60s, never used an exclamation point. Best headline ever:


An exclamation point is like a symbol crash. Are two or three (or five or six, you screamers) more effective? No. They diminish the punch. Just one.

Suggesting boldface & italic the old-fashioned way

In the days of typewriters, emphasis was achieved in several ways, the most common underlining (you had to first type the words, then backspace and add the underline). This represented boldface & italic for emphasis, but always italic for indicating a book or film title. ALL CAPS was used to draw attention, or to indicate headings and subheads. And boldface achieved by actually backspacing the carriage and typing the text over two or three times until it was bold. In “modern” typewriters there were interchangeable balls and wheels that contained different fonts, another means of achieving boldface & italic.

And there was the two-color ribbon, red & black. That emphasized more than boldface & italic combined!

chaz sez ...

Check out the new “chaz sez” blog at DesimoneDesign.com, my commercial graphic design website. It’s mostly about design & typography—including plenty of boldface & italics.

Most articles will cover various aspects of design, printing, publishing & marketing, but on occasion I’ll divert to a sideways topic that just can’t escape my ranting & raving.

  Please critique & comment in the big blue box below.  


Production notes for #72 Boldface & Italic:
Original size: 20 x 30 inches

Program: Adobe Illustrator
Fonts: Franklin Gothic, Clearface
Ampersand: Franklin Gothic, Clearface
You may repost the image. Please credit AmperArt.com.
To download a full-size high-resolution 11×17-inch poster, click on the image.

For professional graphic design, please visit Desimone Design.

Desimone? Damn good!

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Chaz DeSimone

Design. Dancing. Disneyland. Modernism. Nudism. Black Cats or any other color.

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