One of the problems with online communication is the inability to create emphasis in the text we type. This problem is particularly present in blog comments and social media.

In the past, I’ve discussed how we should use bold and italics to create emphasis in the words we write. That’s easy enough to do in print documents, websites, or even emails, where the tools we use to create that text include formatting options. Those same options aren’t available in social media posts or in blog comments, however.

So what can we do?

Capital letters

Well, one method people have been falling back on is capital letters (e.g. “That sky is REALLY blue.”).

In the past, I’ve talked about avoiding capitalization for emphasis. This was specifically referring to actual capitalization (i.e. the first letter of a word), as compared to uppercase, which is what I used in my example in the previous paragraph. For example:

  • That sky is Really Blue.
  • That sky is REALLY blue.

Using uppercase works, but it does have one significant issue. In the early days of the internet, typing in uppercase was considered the text equivalent of shouting. That feeling persists, and typing in uppercase, even if for just a word or two, may put off some people.

Asterisk and underscore

So, if we can’t type in uppercase and we can’t actually bold or italicize our words, what can we do to emphasize?

We can turn to some relatively old school technology. In the email client Thunderbird, if you wrote an email using formatting, but decided to send it as plain text, Thunderbird would strip out all your formatting. For some of the formatting, however, it replaced it with a plain text equivalent:

  • “The sky is really blue” becomes “That sky is *really* blue.”
  • “That sky is really blue” becomes “That sky is _really_ blue.”

One option, then, is to use asterisks and underscores. Interestingly enough, you can use them as shortcuts in Microsoft Word and OpenOffice to bold and italicize words. It also works as a shortcut in various other programs, including Ello, WhatsApp, Skype, and even some blog commenting platforms.

So the next time you need to emphasize something on Twitter or Facebook, try asterisks and underscores.

About Kim Siever

I am a copywriter and copyeditor. I blog on writing tips mostly, but I sometimes throw in my thoughts about running a small business. Follow me on Twitter at @hotpepper.

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