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I'm not asking when to underline. There are myriad references for that via a simple internet search. However, this one doesn't seem to appear anywhere...

For print-based projects....

I'm curious if space characters should be included when underlining general text for emphasis?

In other words, which of the below would be the preferred usage for an underline?

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Or is this merely a more stylistic preference left to the typesetter/editor/designer?


I realize for web-based projects you want the underline to encompass an entire link, not each word. So, this really doesn't apply to anything web-based. For digital projects, I would honestly never use an underline for emphasis where there is also not an associated link. Any failure to include a space would indicate separate links in digital delivery.

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  • 8
    Whatever you choose, I recommend to seek ways to make the gap in the underline around the descender of the p smaller.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 28 at 9:47
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    The preferred usage for a underline is "replace it with some other typographic feature". Your own example indicates the typographic problem that the descender of the p is either not underlined, or "crossed out" by the underline. Dividing "em p hasis* into three typographic elements is nonsense.
    – alephzero
    May 28 at 13:06
  • 1
    You should also underline the p May 28 at 19:16
  • 3
    Underlining is just a hangover from typewritting when bold and italics weren't available. I never use it May 29 at 9:51
  • TeX must know how to do it right, doesn't it? i.stack.imgur.com/5Ohzy.png May 29 at 22:18
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Given that underlining is rarely used in designed printed type, I don’t think any effective general convention exists on this, where by effective I mean that breaking the convention actually irritates any reader. There may be conventions to specific niches of literature though.

I see the following pros and cons of underlining spaces:

  • Pro: It is semantically consistent if you are emphasising all words as a group and not individual words that happen to be next to each other (if not, you can make the distinction).
  • Pro: Readability is increased by avoiding the visual clutter of ending and beginning underlines. Of course, visual clutter is already high when underlining, so you may as well embrace it.
  • Con: Readability is decreased as word gaps become less distinct. I would expect that longer underlined passages decrease this affect as they give the reader’s brain the opportunity to switch to “underlined reading mode”.

At the end of the day, you have to decide for the lesser evil dependent on the length, frequency, and semantic nature of your underlined passages and the typeface. I expect that underlining spaces is the lesser evil in most cases.

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Not underlining the spaces implies that the words are to be taken individually rather than in a grouped way.

For digital media where the underline is a link, I would say always underline the spaces. Otherwise it very well might be interpreted as three separate links instead of one link.

In a non-digital media where you're underlining only for emphasis, I'd say whether or not to underline the space is dependent on how independent you want the words to be read. I read the non-underlined-space version along the lines of how "underline. for. emphasis." would be read.

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As you mentioned this is a "stylistic preference", with no distinct good vs. bad approach.

For print, I'd still pick version A as the more conventional and easier to follow for readers. The underline in that particular situation is used to highlight a piece of the copy, so that it stands out when cross-reading a page. It is supposed to be a "stop here and read this" marker, just like using bolds or italics in some way.

So, by breaking up the underline at every space you are altering this "highlight" function and diminishing the impact of the underline.

It would also be a bit unusual, as most "business" type documents will generally tend to be more conventional in formatting, vs. the more experimental typography you see in cultural/art materials, for example.

So this also depends on the subject of the piece.

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  • "diminishing impact" .. well stated ;)
    – Scott
    May 28 at 10:07
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    This is not a stylistic preference imo, it affects the meaning of the text and the way that it will be read. May 28 at 19:17
  • The term "stylistic preference" was introduced by the OP, I've just re-used it to keep the answer linked to the question, but yes I agree subjectively it is not that "stylistic". That's why my answer and arguments here tend to advise against using the broken up underline.
    – Lucian
    May 28 at 22:02
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Assuming body text, I'd prefer, on the basis of clarity, to use a continuous (expect for line breaks) underline for continuous emphasis, just like with one vs. many weblinks. Keep the concept together.

The "when" to underline may have some relevance to whether it's broken though, or at least "why" to underline. Because it's not a preferred form of emphasis in type, it's useful for emphasising edits, comment targets, and similar, when it will be dropped from the final version. In this case, I'd break the underline at each edit break, and not between words otherwise.

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    I whole-heartedly agree that underlines for emphasis are generally better off being replaced with italics, bold, bold italics, etc. However, some writers/editors are.. well... control freaks less interested in aesthetics. :).
    – Scott
    May 28 at 10:13
  • @Scott If the editor is not interested in aesthetics, the OP's question is irrelevant. Just set the whole document in Comic Sans and move on the the next job :)
    – alephzero
    May 28 at 13:08
  • @alephzero Sometimes we fight an uphill aesthetic battle. We can either push to do the best possible given restraints we don't agree with, or merely throw in the towel. :) Comic Sans would merely mean I'm ready to retire. :)
    – Scott
    May 28 at 18:26

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