Various sources (such as Wikipedia) say that underlining words is a practice originally from handwritten documents, intended to show the printer that the words needed to be emphasized (with italics or some such). Today, I sometimes see underlines showing up in books and other printed material. When did books start using underlined text for emphasis?

Edit: Many of the answers and comments here seem to have a No True Scotsman problem. I'm well aware that good typography doesn't use underlines for emphasis, but plenty of books use lousy typography.

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    Is this question for real? Underlined text has been around a long time, I'm not sure what the origin date is though. I wouldn't recommend it but I'm not sure why anyone would ask this. Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 6:31
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    @plainclothes, it's a real question. I know I've seen 20th century books using underlines, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen a 17th century book using them. Hopefully someone can narrow it down a bit more.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 7:56
  • Can you show an example?
    – e100
    Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 11:47
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    Here's a typical example of where I've seen underlines in published works: books.google.com/books?id=72ArAAAAYAAJ
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 2:56
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    @joe given the era of that example, and the source (scientific report) I think that's an example of using underlines in liu of proper typesetting. My hunch is that was less of a design decision and more of a technological limitation of what they were using to format/print the book.
    – DA01
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 3:52

2 Answers 2


In Western printing, underlining is at least as old as printing. There was a general process called rubricing which is the process of marking and annotating (originally by hand) of a printed manuscript to finish it and/or give more legitimacy to the printed item. Usually this was just red lettering, but very often included the use of underlining. Later it was common to forgo hand-rubricing in favor of a separate printing pass with red ink.

Try an image search for "rubricate underlining" and you will see examples.


I think that the use of a typewriter increased the usage of underlining (you can't simply change the font of a typewriter). So it was easier to go back and underline the word or the complete heading.

In a well printed book or thesis you will never see an underlined word or words. If you have the possibility to use italic font (or a typewriter font for urls) you should do it.

  • If you are a typographer, and you know exactly what you are doing, you can use it.
  • If you are not a typographer, use justified text with hyphenation and use italic font for marking or use a color.

Writing your thesis (your given example shows one): do not use underlining (that shows you know nothing about good typography). Use italic font. Please have a look in a book on typography like Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style.

Have for example an look to Spache research, 1965. I think it is written with an typewriter. That causes the underlining. The (blue) underlining in the TOC remarks that the headings in TOC are links to the chapters or sections.

An interesting book for this is The technology of text; with a few underlinings, remarking that students when working with books used to underline important things in it. That would be a reason for me not to use underlining in a book or paper.

  • Hi Kurt, I've made a small edit to put the part of your answer that directly addresses the question first. Also, it's good practice when quoting a design 'rule' to state why that rule is advised (here, because text decoration distracts from the text, harming readability). All design rules can have rare exceptions where the trade-off is worth it. Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 17:50
  • @user568458: you are wellcome and thanks for the edit. My English is only school English ...
    – Mensch
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 17:53
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    interesting tidbit from 1811: specifically refers to the practice of underlining to indicate to the typesetter that it is to be set italic ( preface, XIV-XIV, footnote [ books.google.com/… ] )
    – horatio
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 15:56
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    There are times I would consider underling to be the best way of indicating things typographically. It is capable of emphasizing certain letters of a word without detracting from the legibility of the word as a whole as much as would setting a word in using mixture of roman and italic, or bold and light, typefaces. Further, there are many cases where underlining may convey the notion of a "filled-in blank" more effectively than other forms of highlighting other than a colored background, and can distinguish between three separate blanks and one longer blank.
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 22:26

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