13 May 2008

Stop Underlining, People!

PUNCTUATION WEEK continues with some good old-fashioned grousing! The English language had a fine system of punctuation and typography until the typewriter came along. (Illustrated history of early models here.)

While that machine made it possible for every office and eventually every household to produce legible, standardized text, it also came with some technical limits. The typewriter keyboard offered writers a smaller set of symbols to choose from. The machine required each character to be exactly the same width. And between those two limitations, our notions of punctuation became sadly impoverished.

Over the last twenty years, laser and inkjet printers have made it possible to approximate the typesetting we see in books. But most people are still typing in ways they learned back in high-school typing classes, and I think the results are ugly.

One example is how typography uses italic type to emphasize a word or indicate the title of a book or similar long artistic work. (Titles of short works, such as songs and short stories, should appear in quotation marks.)

Typewriters couldn’t provide italic characters, so early on their manufacturers came up with an alternative. The standard instruction to typesetters to italicize a word in a handwritten manuscript or a proof was to draw a line underneath it.* By backing up and using the underline key, typists could put lines under their letters. So the style manuals declared that underlining was the typewriter equivalent of italics.

But we don't need underlining anymore, at least not for this use. It looks ugly; that's why we rarely see it in books. And a manuscript that contains both italics and underlining just seems confused. Let's make the shift to italics once and for all!

* Similar proofreading instructions:

  • Two lines underneath = put this text in small-caps style.
  • Three lines = capitalize.
  • A squiggly line = boldface.
  • A dotted line = forget what I scribbled and leave the text the way it is.
More to see here.


Kelly said...

I miss the old underlining (if the title is short--Like for Anna Karenina). I really, really do. Italics do look better for longer titles, but still...aren't you the least big nostalgic about underlining, J.L.?

J. L. Bell said...

I recall some small satisfaction in underlining a long passage on an electric typewriter: just hitting the right key combination and watching the machine go bambambambambam...

But italic type is so elegant, and a horizontal line beneath roman type so characterless, that I was delighted when laser printers made it possible to go back to the old system.

Sam said...

Fifteen years ago when I was a cub reporter I got in an argument with my editor about this.

I argued hard because I knew I remembered my high school English teacher's instructions: underline names of books.

I lost.

J. L. Bell said...

Alas, newspaper style is different, as you learned painfully.

For technological reasons (at least at the outset), newspapers eschew both italics and underlining, and therefore put all titles between quotation marks.

Which of course confuses anyone trying to learn a consistent system that extends across all forms of media.

The web may have its own style sheet. Since hyperlinks are usually designated with underlining, that may completely necessitate italic type for titles.