bold or italicOne or the other, as little as possible

Bold or italic—al­ways think of them as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. That is the first rule.

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

Nev­er­the­less, some writ­ers—let’s call them over­em­pha­siz­ers—just can’t get enough bold and 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 and their pa­tience. It also gives you nowhere to go when you need to em­pha­size a word. That’s no prob­lem for overem­pha­siz­ers, who re­sort to un­der­lin­ing bold text or us­ing bold italic. These are both bad ideas.

With a serif font, use italic for gen­tle em­pha­sis, or bold for heav­ier emphasis.

If you’re us­ing a sans serif font, skip italic and use bold for em­pha­sis. It’s not usu­ally worth ital­i­ciz­ing sans serif fonts—un­like serif fonts, which look quite dif­fer­ent when ital­i­cized, most sans serif italic fonts just have a gen­tle slant that doesn’t stand out on the page.

by the way
  • For­eign words used in Eng­lish are some­times ital­i­cized, some­times not, de­pend­ing on how com­mon they are. For in­stance, you would ital­i­cize your bête noire and your Weltan­schau­ung, but not your crois­sant or your résumé. When in doubt, con­sult a dic­tio­nary or us­age guide. Don’t for­get to type the ac­cented char­ac­ters correctly.

  • Char­ac­ters ad­ja­cent to the out­side edges of the em­pha­sized text—like punc­tu­a­tion, paren­the­ses, brack­ets, and braces—do not get the em­phatic formatting.

  • See head­ings for tips on how to avoid es­ca­lat­ing overem­pha­sis when writ­ing a doc­u­ment with mul­ti­ple head­ing levels.

  • If you need an­other op­tion for em­pha­sis, con­sider all caps or small caps.

  • Some fonts have both a bold style and a semi­bold style. You can use ei­ther for em­pha­sis. I usu­ally pre­fer bold to semi­bold be­cause I like the greater con­trast with the ro­man. But semi­bold is a lit­tle eas­ier to read.

  • Some fonts 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.