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Underlining: A Bad Choice Online

Yesterday I visited two websites where underlining had gone wrong. At each site, I clicked underlined (underscored) words and phrases, expecting to be taken to more information. But there was no click. I just sat there, staring at an unchanging screen.

In the old days, we used underlining for emphasis. Now underlining indicates a hyperlink. When underlining appears online–even in email or word-processed documents–people expect it to indicate a link.

If underlining is no longer a good tool for emphasis, what is? Try a bold font. I have used bolding in this post to emphasize the beginning of each paragraph. The bolding should help you skim the message and quickly get the main point in each paragraph.

By contrast, italicized words do not draw the reader’s attention. Italics give a word or phrase emphasis in a sentence, as in the previous sentence and the word not. But italics do not make words stand out in a visual scan. For that purpose, use a bold font.

Caution: Avoid reader dizziness. I get dizzy when bolding is used sporadically, as in this paragraph. As a reader, I would rather skim bold headings and bold paragraph openings than have to sift through bold type sprinkled throughout a document.

Let’s not confuse readers with “links” that go nowhere. At one of the sites I visited yesterday, every heading was underlined, which naturally led me to believe the headings were links. I went so far as to examine my mouse and Ctrl key, thinking they had frozen on me. Don’t confuse readers: For headings, use a bold font or larger font–not underlining.

Do you have suggestions about how to emphasize information online? Please share them.

Syntax Training (linked, not emphasized)

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

7 comments on “Underlining: A Bad Choice Online”

  • Hi Lynn,
    I’m so glad you pointed this out. It’s one of my pet peeves. Sooooo many web pages are using underlining to emphasize things it’s driving me insane. It’s so prevalent that I no longer trust underlining to mean hyperlink.

    I hope your message gets out to the world so people will stop using underlining as emphasis.

    Thanks for a great post,
    Kathy Goughenour

  • Thanks for this Lynn. In my article on my blog “E-mail Etiquette” I had actually recommended using bold, italics or underlining to emphasize a word rather than the colour red because of colour blindness. I have changed that because of this post. Underlining a word has taken on a new meaning and can be confusing to the reader of an electronic document.

    Although on my blog when I insert a link it underlines it, but also changes the font colour so it distinguishes between regular underlining and hyperlink underlining.

  • Thanks to Joanna, Kathy, and Patricia for your comments. I appreciate all of you for stopping by.

    Patricia, you are right. Some software changes the color of a link, and that color change makes the link obvious. Some web color schemes unfortunately don’t seem to allow that change.


  • These are great reminders, Lynn. Thanks. I have on occasion used all caps for emphasis. If you use the small all caps in word processing it doesn’t have the SHOUTING effect. I use this method selectively, for obvious reasons.

  • I love the IT technology, my dad got me my first pc for my birthday and ever since I became a big IT freak. I started internet marketing for the last four months and still looking for material that can help my marketing.

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