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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