I love emphasis. From italics to exclamation points to capitalization, one can make writing into an amusement park of wild rides.

This will not be an exhaustive look at the many forms of emphasis in the English language; I’ll just discuss some of my favorite methods, as well as — you can be sure — some warnings against absolutely WRONG ways to emphasize.

1. Italicization
This is the best way to emphasize a word or phrase. Using italics makes me feel like an author because it was in a novel, I think, that I first discovered the joy of reading italicized words. Italicization makes reading aloud a breeze. It’s subtle yet effective, classy but not condescending. (Underlining is the non-technological way of italicizing. It’s the emphatic tool of typewriters and hand-written letters; it’s useful but increasingly uncommon.)

2. Capitalization
When typing, this is a particularly easy way to emphasize a word or phrase, but it also comes across to the reader as being rather obnoxious. In the Bible, words like LORD and I AM and HOLINESS TO THE LORD are capitalized, which tells me they are very, very important. In casual, everyday writings, however, few words are as important as those listed above. Actually, none are. So, use capitalization very sparingly. (For an example of a correct though intentionally obnoxious use of capitalization, see paragraph #2 of this essay.)

3. Exclamation points
Some famous author once said that a person should be given a ration of one exclamation point to use in writing across the span of his or her entire life. He makes a good point, although I won’t be quite so stingy. Exclamation points are fun to stick in odd places (like the title of this essay), but they’re most commonly used at the end of sentences containing material which, to the author, is particularly exciting. My caution is this: if you read a draft of your e-mail or other exciting composition, and more than half of the sentences end in an exclamation point, you should either revise it or seriously consider consulting a doctor for hyperactivity.

4. Use of cool words
Probably what I really mean instead of “cool” is “appropriate.” But appropriate is often cool, although cool is often not appropriate. You know what I mean. A word in time saves nine, or at least saves you from using other emphatic tools. Case in point: um… I don’t have a case in point. Cool, appropriate words take some thought; they aren’t the product of a brain on cruise control.

I have only one other warning that hasn’t been addressed above. Quotation marks are never, never!, NEVER to be used to emphasize a word. Quotation marks are reserved for the titles of short works such as short poems, songs, short stories, and chapters; they also should surround the words people say and words taken out of something written to which one wants to refer. (That’s why they’re called quotation marks.) They are not to be used to draw attention to a word or to stress a word. As an example of how not to use quotation marks, consider this advertisement:

* * *
Puppies for Sale!
“Cute!” “Cuddly!”
Call 123.456.7890
“Please take one home today!”
* * *
The person who posted this sign clearly didn’t understand how to use quotation marks. The only way this could be considered correct is if someone said “Please take one home today!” and that the dogs were “cute!” and “cuddly!” Even in that case, one should always cite her sources. And on top of all that, this sign reeks of exclamation point diarrhea.
So, you see, the key in using emphasis is simply to avoid quotation marks, and by all means, DON’T BE EXCESSIVE!!!
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