Guidelines for Underlining

Back in the 60s I learned how to type on a manual typewriter. Businesses were just beginning the transition to electric typewriters, and of course there weren’t any computers.

Typewriters had limited options for style and emphasis. My typing class learned to center titles by pressing the space bar over and over. Boldface was accomplished through patience and backspacing.

There was an underline key, but it was supposed to be used only to indicate italics (although high-school students like me used it recklessly to add emphasis and variety to whatever we were writing).

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Word-processing programs come with built-in styles that automatically format titles and headings. Our options are dazzling: Color, serif and sans-serif typefaces, and a whole range of font sizes. Boldface and italics are available by pressing a key.

So what do many writers do? They underline. @#$%&!

I’m going to list, calmly and rationally, the guidelines for underlining. Here they are:

  1. Never underline anything.
  2. Pretend there’s no underline key on your keyboard.
  3. Repeat this mantra as often as necessary: “Underlining is ugly, and professionals never use it.”
  4. Make use of the other formatting options in your word-processing program.

So why is the underlining key there if we’re not supposed to use it? That’s a legitimate question, and a few years ago I finally found the answer.

A few years ago a friend and I put together a book for a university press. We had to follow a complex set of formatting guidelines to ensure that our manuscript was compatible with the company’s publishing system. Everything had to be set up in a courier typeface, and we were forbidden to use any special keys except – gasp! – the underline key. No boldface, no italics, no colors. We couldn’t switch typefaces or font sizes. Our instructions were that any time we saw something that needed italics, we should underline it.

We duly followed the directions, and lo and behold: When our book was published, the ugly courier typeface had been magically converted into something snazzy and professional, and all the underlined words were transformed into italics.

And that, my friend, is the only time you’re allowed to use underlining. No, wait: There are two more. You can underline when you’re writing by hand, since you don’t have other formatting options. And if by chance you still own a manual or electric typewriter, you can underline to your heart’s content. Be my guest!

Typewriter Keys

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