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In typography, emphasis is the exaggeration of words in a text with a font in a different style from the rest of the text—to emphasize them.

Methods and use of emphasis

Fig. 1: Roman emphasis example

The human eye is very receptive to differences in brightness within a text body. One can therefore differentiate between types of emphasis according to whether the emphasis changes the “blackness” of text.

A means of emphasis that does not have much effect on “blackness” is the use of italics, where the text is written in a script style, or the use of oblique, where the vertical orientation of all letters is slanted to the left or right. With one or the other of these techniques (usually only one is available for any typeface), words can be highlighted without making them stand out much from the rest of the text (inconspicuous stressing). Traditionally, this is used for marking passages that have a different context, such as words from foreign languages, book titles, and the like.

By contrast, boldface makes text darker than the surrounding text. With this technique, the emphasized text strongly stands out from the rest; it should therefore be used to highlight certain keywords that are important to the subject of the text, for easy visual scanning of text. For example, printed dictionaries often use boldface for their keywords, and the names of articles can conventionally be marked in bold.

If the text body is typeset in a serif typeface, it is also possible to highlight words by setting them in a sans serif face; this practice is somewhat archaic.

Small capitals are also used for emphasis, especially for the first line of a section, sometimes accompanied by or instead of a drop cap.

In Cyrillic and blackletter typography, it used to be common to emphasize words using letterspaced type. This practice for Cyrillic has become obsolete with the availability of Cyrillic italic and small capital fonts (Bringhurst version 3.0, p 32).

The above-mentioned methods of emphasis fall under the general technique of emphasis through a change of font.

Emphasis in design

With both italics and boldface, the emphasis is correctly achieved by temporarily replacing the current typeface. Professional typographic systems, including most modern computers, would therefore not simply tilt letters to the right to achieve italics (that is instead referred to as slanting) or print them darker for boldface, but instead use entirely different typefaces that achieve the effect. As can be seen in Fig. 1, the "w" letter, for example, looks quite different in italic compared to the regular typeface.

As a result, typefaces therefore have to be supplied at least fourfold (with computer systems, usually as four font files): as regular, bold, italic, and bold italic to provide for all combinations. Professional typefaces sometimes offer even more variations for popular fonts, with varying degrees of blackness. Only if such fonts are not available should the effect of italic or boldface be imitated by tilting or blacking the original font.

Alternative methods for emphasis


The house styles of many publishers in the United States use capitalization or all-uppercase letters to emphasise

Capitalization is used much less commonly today by British publishers, and usually only for book titles. It is rarely used in other languages.

All-uppercase letters are a common form of emphasis where the medium lacks support for boldface, such as old typewriters, plain-text email, SMS and other text-messaging systems.

Japanese text can be emphasised in a similar way by writing the emphasised text entirely in katakana phonetic characters.


In Germany, a different means of emphasis was previously used. To achieve a variance in blackness, instead of making the letters darker, one would increase the spacing between them. This resulted in an effect reverse to boldface: the emphasized text becomes lighter than its environment. This was referred to as sperren in German ("letterspacing" in English), which could here be translated as "spacing out". While sperren normally means "to lock (out)", this particular meaning was figurative: with the older method of typesetting with letters of lead, the spacing would be achieved by inserting additional non-printing slices of metal between the types.

The reason for this particular German typographic convention can be seen in the traditional use of blackletter typefaces, for which boldface was not feasible, since the letters were very dark in their standard format. The blackletter typefaces were officially abolished in 1941 by Nazi Germany (see Antiqua-Fraktur dispute), and after that, its use quickly diminished. As a result, the use of spacing as a means of emphasis in printed materials quickly became obsolete. However, spacing is sometimes still used as a means of emphasis in typographic media where only one typeset is available, e.g. in typewritten communication or on text-only computer terminals.

An example of this form of emphasis is shown here. Notice that the standard blackletter ligatures are still used. For example, ch, ck, and tz are still 'stuck together' just as the Eszett; no space separates the letters of these groups.

The method of increasing letter spacing for emphasis has also been used in other countries, like the Netherlands.

Special punctuation marks

In Chinese, emphasis in body text is supposed to be indicated by using an "emphasis mark" (着重號), which is a dot placed under each character to be emphasized. This is still taught in schools, but in practice it is not usually done, probably due to the difficulty of doing this in most computer software. Methods used for emphasis in western texts but inappropriate for Chinese, for example underlining and setting text in artificially slanted type (frequently incorrectly called "italics"), are often used instead.

In Koreanmarker texts, a dot is placed above each hangul syllable block or hanja to be emphasized.

In Armenian the ՛ sign is used.


Important words in a text may be colored differently to others. For example, many dictionaries use a different color for headwords, and many Bibles color the words of Jesus red.

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