Monthly Archives: February 2011

Know these Rules and Hope for the Best

[Note: As mentioned in the foreword of a book assembled from my blog site, self-published books are notoriously unfaithful to original documents, especially in respect to punctuation. Even in this attempt to edit an already published article, there are irreparable errors. For example, the blog site might be unable to underscore words that I had underscored in the original document. This is especially unfortunate in an article that features elementary grammar!

In order to mitigate the confusion occasioned by the scribes of cyberspace publishing on line and in publishing houses, I’ve placed an asterisk after those words that I intended but was unable to have underscored. I hope you may ignore that.]

The spoken word is rich in nuances produced by vocal techniques. The written word requires textual techniques to emulate nuances of speech as closely as possible. There are times when we have choices as to which technique is best. There are other times when we have no choice.


Major techniques designed to stress words or phrases include the use of bold, italic, or underscored* fonts. You might incorrectly write, “You must* use only one font for one word.” That statement is correct in itself, of course, but a single stress indicator is sufficient. Exceptions are described below.

There is a special rule about the italic font that is not generally known. If you want to be ‘perfect,’ the following paragraph illustrates a rule you might follow.

Because I am writing this sentence in italic font, if I wish to stress a word, I simply reverse the font. I also have the option of writing that same italicized sentence as follows: Because I am writing this sentence in italic font, if I wish to stress a word I simply reverse* the font. Note that I have not ‘broken the rule’ by underscoring /reverse/ (an italicized word) because that entire sentence is italicized. Technically, only the underscore serves as a stress factor.

Italics are often used to quote passages from sources other than the author. For example: In the first chapter of his book, The Handyman’s Handbook on Cosmology, Mario states:

Cosmology may be thought of as having existed during our earliest civilizations. This statement stems from the idea that any study of the heavens automatically implies cosmology. But cosmology did not emerge as a science until it was discovered that our galaxy is not the entire universe, but rather only one of billions of galaxies.

Note that the word /science/ is not in italics, thereby stressing that word in the context of an italicized paragraph. (Hopefully, my site has also indented the quote in this edit. If not, remember that quotes read best when indented.)

You may distinguish quoted text with italicized fonts (preferably bold) or by quotation marks at the beginning and end of the quoted passage. By far, I prefer the former method.

If you choose to stress words or phrases that were not stressed by the original author, you must inform the reader that you have done so immediately following your stress indicator in parentheses, e.g., (my underscore) or (italics mine), and so on. Also, you must copy the original quote exactly as written. There are no options to these two rules on pain of death!

If the author (or editor) had misspelled a word, copy it exactly as written and add [sic] immediately after the offending word to acknowledge the misspelling or other error. Always be sure that your comments are precisely distinguished from those of the author.

All punctuation should be consistent. For example, once you decide to use italic fonts rather than quotation marks to indicate a title, be sure that all the titles in your document are italicized, with the exception of the title of your document. Titles in the same document require either italicized fonts or quotation marks throughout, never randomly mixed.

Italic fonts are very useful as an alternative to quotation marks when we wish to indicate a title. For example, if you write The Revenge of the Grammarians, it is understood that the italicized words indicate the title of a film and/or book. I prefer this technique as opposed to “The Revenge of the Grammarians.”

Quotation marks within quotation marks, should be single or double depending on the context:

Correct: He said, “I don’t care about the ‘rules’ of grammar.”

Correct: ‘Some “rules of grammar” cannot be broken.’

A reminder about international differences in the Anglo-Saxon world:

British: “We place our end quotation mark first, then the period”.

American: “We place our period first, then our end quotation mark.”

As difficult as it may be to accept a ‘triple quotation mark’ at the end of a sentence, there is a rule about that:

Correct: “I’m bothered by ‘rules of grammar.'” Note that there should be no spaces within the ‘triple quotation mark’ (the single mark for the highlighted phrase and the double closing quotation mark). If you obey that rule, many readers will think this is a typographical error. You might avoid being falsely accused of that by writing, “Rules of grammar bother me.” There is always a way to get out of a grammatical crisis.

In technical language, you may freely combine stress factors that are already emphatic in themselves, e.g., bold caps combined with underscoring. This is one of the exceptions to which I referred above. The need for clarity and categorization trumps the exclusivity ‘rule.’ For example:


  • Bold
  • Italic
  • underscore

It’s technically correct to use caps, bold, and underscoring simultaneously when appropriate. Yet, the use of bullets, powerful stress tools in themselves, should obviate additional stress techniques. The overkill I’ve used here is simply to emphasize further stressing if desired or necessary. But I always try to blend economy with clarity. In this case, the following would be more appropriate than the example above.


  • Bold
  • Italic
  • underscore

Using ‘caps’ is another way to stress words or phrases, but caps should be used sparingly as stress indicators. Used within a sentence, caps are cosmetically ugly. If I were writing anything other than a grammar guide I would never stress so many words in the body of a document as I have done here. Overstressing desensitizes the reader to highlighted words and passages, very much as the use of too many painkillers makes them less effective. (Incidentally, note that I’ve used quotes only when I first used the word ‘caps.’)

When I was a young man (long before the advent of word-processing), bold and italic fonts were not available on typewriters. We had only underscoring or caps with which to stress words and phrases. The resulting text was ugly. Italic font is so much “cleaner”! I seldom underscore a word or phrase now. Tragically, in this article where underscoring was absolutely necessary, I was unable to have it included in the text! Although caps for acronyms are grammatically legitimate, I think they’re ugly. I prefer Blue Cross and Blue Shield to BCBS.


Writing is a communications art. Like all other arts, writing has a basic principle often referred to as the Economy of Design. I suggest you read over what you have written. Check for anything that has been expressed more than once. Assuming that you find three different instances of essentially the same thought, consider reducing them to the better two. Then, consider reducing those to the best one. Then, consider if that single thought is essential to the whole. By that time, you’ll know whether or not it should be included in the document.

Ideally this should be a process that runs through the entire work, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. A shorter, tight piece requires more time to write than a longer, looser one.

Writing requires exactitude and restraint as well as creativity.

For your comfort, I feel I should add that you must not be intimidated by a “Gotcha!” I would not have been able to write these few tips (especially under time constraints) were I concerned about a potential “Gotcha!”

And remember: Only when you know the rules are you free to break them.

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