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From the Editors' Association of Canada

Emphasis Added

By Faith Gildenhuys


We all find ourselves looking for ways to convey our oral inflections when we are writing. We convey importance by giving some words more emphasis than others-but how can we do this in print?

Everyone is faced from time to time with the temptation to emphasize importance by using capital letters. However, while capital letters in a text may appear to add significance to the words they begin, in fact, tests have shown that they can distort the message of the sentence that they are in. Reading correctly is based on expectations built up over time and graphic deviance, of which capitalization is an example, can be confusing. But so are the conventions governing when to use it and when not.

The first consideration must be the audience for whom you are writing and its traditions. Business publications are more apt to use capital letters than a film-and-video trade publication. In referring to the presence of a politician at a meeting, a business newsletter might say, "a Cabinet Minister was on hand," while the film-and video publication might talk about "a cabinet minister."

A second consideration is aesthetic. What will the text look like if the writer uses capital letters consistently throughout? A picket fence? And then there is fashion. Currently, the trend is, whenever in doubt, to use lowercase; capitals are considered old-fashioned and conservative.

But capital letters obviously have a place, and that is in the names of things and people and their titles. The difficulties are in determining what is a title and what is not. It is definitely the Ministry of Agriculture, but the ministry, without a specifying element, is a generic term (could be any ministry). It's the writer's choice, governed by the traditions of the organization to refer to a specific ministry as the Ministry or the ministry after it has been first identified.

If the title strays from its official form, the writer must decide whether or not to capitalize; it could be the agriculture ministry or the Agriculture Ministry. The same choice presents itself with plurals. It is the Legislature of British Columbia, but it could be either the Ontario and Alberta Legislatures or legislatures.

People's titles can be confusing as well. It is definitely Premier Dalton McGuinty, but it is Gordon Campbell, the premier of British Columbia (one of a whole line of premiers). If a modifier is added before the title, it usually signals the use of lowercase: The former premier Brian Peckford.

A title standing alone that describes a role rather than the person fulfilling it is not a true title and therefore is lowercase: The lieutenant governor represents the monarch. Difficulties arise, however, with titles that are also job descriptions, such as principal, headmaster, and the like.

Directions are normally lowercase, east, west, north, south, as are seasons, spring summer, fall and winter. But when a direction refers to a specific group of provinces, for examples, the West (BC, Alberta, etc.), it is capitalized.

And just to make things totally arbitrary, there is mine and yours. Elizabeth is Canada's Queen, but Juan Carlos is king of Spain.

As with all such ambiguities in writing, the author, in using capitalization, should study similar publications as a guide and, above all, be consistent.

Ready access via word-processing to a variety of type fonts tempts most of us to create the appearance of emphasis. Italics and boldface are the most common and we often see underlining and quotation marks used for emphasis as well. But unless you adhere to certain conventions in using them, your desire for greater clarity of expression may produce the opposite result and confuse your readers.

First, italics are more difficult to read than normal type. While you may be drawing attention to the word or phrase, the effort that your reader must put into deciphering it may mean that the sense of the phrase is masked. Then there are the special cases for italics, such as book titles and foreign words. You want to avoid using italics for emphasis in documents in which you are also italicizing titles so that the reader isn't initially confused by the word or phrase. Italics should definitely be used sparingly in Web texts, as they are extremely hard to see on a monitor.

There are certainly no problems reading boldface type but it is so distinctive that it can overshadow the adjacent text. Bold is good for headings, less useful inside the body of a document.

Underlining seems like a leftover from the days of the typewriter, when we didn't have any italic fonts available for personal use-at least not before the Selectronic typewriter. In a typescript, underlining a word or phrase alerted a typesetter that this should be set in italics. Underlining doesn't seem to have made much of a transition to the computer and is now relegated, if used at all, to headings, along with boldface.

The use of quotation marks for emphasis is slightly different from using a variety of fonts. We use quotation marks primarily for dialogue and to indicate that we are talking about the word itself, not what it means: The word "alphabet" comes from combining the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. However, it is worth noting how frequently we see common words quoted, to indicate that they are being used in some special sense, and often we're left guessing just what this sense might be. Sometimes it is slang or jargon: He gave me the "skinny" on the new account. Or a colloquial word or phrase in a more formal text: She was "head over heels" for our business plan.

These marks draw perhaps more attention to the word or phrase than the writer intends. Before using them, ask yourself whether the word needs the marks-is the word "skinny" now so much a part of the language that it needs highlighting?-and whether greater clarity is gained by using the marks, or might be better achieved by using a different word.

The same considerations should hold for using colloquial phrases. Would "enthusiastic," without quotation marks, be a better choice than "head over heels"? Sometimes colloquial phrases liven up a document, but they should be used sparingly. And finally, in North America single quotation marks (' ') should not be used for emphasis or selection, except when quoting inside a quotation.

Faith Gildenhuys is president of the Editors' Association of Canada. She has been a freelance editor and writer since 1997, working on publications ranging from government policies and procedures manuals to non-fiction trade books to private memoirs.

For more information about the Editors' Association of Canada, please see their listing in this issue of Sources.



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