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

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 Ama​zon​.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 Des​i​moneDesign​.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.