Nowadays we use bold, italics <u>underline</u>(but not on SE) and even monospacing to emphasise words. However, before the invention of typewriters what emphasis could they use other than underlining?

If you've ever tried to embolden text on paper you will know that it is very tricky and ends up with a big blob of ink obscuring half of your sentence. Italics are also tricky as many handwriting styles are written at a slight slant and it is difficult to distinguish whether or not text is italicised.

How would a writer be able to emphasise text?

  • 3
    Initial caps was used a lot (and SHOUTING). With the advent of movable type, I'm pretty sure that typesetters had access to bold and italic fonts. It was typewriters that caused all the problems (although my typewriter has the luxury of red ink for really important words).
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 17:50
  • 6
    HOW COULD I FORGET SHOUTING! Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 18:02
  • 7
    Repetition. Let me repeat that: repetition. And, just for emphasis, repetition. // Other rhetorical devices also; displacement of the verb or subject, for example.
    – JEL
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 18:45
  • 5
    And there'd be repetition.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 0:25
  • 1
    @Ooker Though it is not directly about English (of course could be parochially interpreted as about writing just English), ELU is enriched by such interesting and not irrelevant questions.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 13:44

6 Answers 6


I notice the following techniques in the Declaration of Independence:

  • Initial Caps
  • Small Caps
  • All Caps
  • Larger Text Size
  • Font Change (script vs something that's more like black lettering)
  • Stylized Swashes
  • White Space

Each of which serves to give a sense of emphasis.

  • What a great, common sense way to answer this question. I doubt you could find a more authoritative example! Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 17:35
  • So many nouns are capitalized in the Declaration that I cannot see capitalization alone as emphatic — what's emphatic about “the Course of human events”? Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 18:55

The rosetta stone features cartouches to call out the names of the rulers:



This was the ancient Egyptian version of bold-faced names in gossip columns. Champollion was able to use this as a clue in his translation of the hieroglyphics.

I don't believe the cartouche was a general purpose emphasis tho.

  • 6
    This is interesting, but was it ever used in English?
    – herisson
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 19:18
  • 1
    Even if it wasn't used in English, @suməlic, I'm glad to have learnt that this morning. Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 8:50
  • "I don't believe the cartouche was a general purpose emphasis tho." IIRC, the use of cartouches had a spiritual reason. In Ancient Egyptian philosophy, someone's name was a real part of their being, which needed to protected.
    – Rhymoid
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 13:32
  • This seems irrelevant to the question. Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 14:48
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit was that comment directed at my answer or at a comment?
    – AllInOne
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 13:25

There are loads of ways, but they fit a few categories. (Heck, here's a similar list on Wikipedia)

Most of these stand out only if the writer is consistent enough that the change is unexpected as part of the previous pattern.

Color: when colors contrast, the eye catches a difference. Red is especially good for standing out. (e.g. Rubrication & Gilding)

You waste your gold and your time if you gild every letter on the page unless that entire page happens to be worth calling out from the rest of the book. (Pictures of some manuscripts)

Weight: I don't know what methods you've attempted, but it's not that tricky to increase line weight if you aren't already pushing the limits of legibility for your letter size.

You can also go down in weight for emphasis, too, if you do find your line weight too high to increase it.

There have multiple nibs for writing for centuries at least, and carving a quill allows one to make these adjustments to taste.

Scale: You want something to pop, it's hard to beat simply making it bigger. Drop caps are one example, but so are using capital letters at all. Again, disruption catches the eye, so dropping size stands out, too.

Different letterforms: (Capitals are actually a combination of this and scale.) If your hand changes enough, it can stand out. That's the principle behind using italics, which has an old pedigree. If your writing in italics, you can switch to a block script for emphasis. (Discussion of "fonts" in manuscripts)

Symbols and graphics: Underlining is a special case of adding small graphical signifiers around the letters you want to call out. Other examples are diacritics, asterisks, and daggers. Dashes, parentheses, periods, and every other punctuation mark, too. Line or dot leaders for lists helps to distinguish parts. Inline art of other sorts is used, too, such as borders or section divisions using rules or marks.

Flow and layout: the last general case is simply placing the text somewhere other than expected. Sidebars or headings sitting off on their own are examples of this. Drop caps & paragraphs called out by margins and spaces are some more.

Simply adding extra space around things you wish to emphasize (say, the end of a sentence) is a pretty gentle approach to emphasize it.

You might recall that very old manuscripts often lack any punctuation and whitespace. Standards for such were added over time as precisely this sort of graphical embellishment: ways to call out important spots in the text, like where a reader should pause for a period (period) or when they should stop the thought. (comma)

(I'm not sure how we reversed comma and period, but we did)

Rules for punctuation are simply elevation of what worked to a widely accepted standard. It's true that a lot of our formal rules came from typesettters, but many came from their copyist predecessors.

(Most of this is pretty common knowledge, I think, but I intend to come back and insert some references for the less obvious stuff.)

  • Yeah, references would be nice, as would the use of some of the techniques in your answer; you basically have a big long list of text, could you add some emphasis on technique names etc.? Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 21:45
  • 1
    Hey, I used whitespace.
    – The Nate
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 21:58
  • @BladorthinTheGrey This answer has example images of some of those — including of versals/lettrines, rubrication and gilding, and what you would call drop caps tastefully done. Note also how real typographers use real Latin for their examples. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 2:19

Handwritten script can be manipulated (by a suitably skilled scrivener) to be large, small, stretched, compact, elaborate, plain. See, for instance, the US Constitution.

  • 1
    To embolden one can embiggen. Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 11:51

Being this is the holiday season for the Jews, I'll bring up the example of the Torah. The production of the first five books of the Bible took place in the desert about 3200 years ago. The making of a new Torah replicates the efforts of Moses: it is still printed by hand onto animal skin parchment, for instance.

A Wikipedia search of Canaanite languages will give you a fascinating overview of the pains people went to keep records on stone, parchment, or papyrus, and no, none of them take ink very well.

The Torah contains no vowels and minimal punctuation (just the colon, I think, used as a full stop). Written Hebrew has had three different 22-letter alphabets since the Jews left Egypt, but none of them had case or emphasis options other than font size.

This was important since biblical Hebrew had no future tense or mood, so there had to be a way to tell the difference; such as "I am the Lord your God" (present), "Honor your father and mother" (imperative), and "Thou shalt not kill" (future).

The solution is in the cadence. Those reading the Torah knew the incantations. (Hebrew prayers are generally not spoken; they are sung, even the Bible readings.) The author was taught the cadence from the rabbi above him--a form of apostolic succession since (Orthodox) Jews believe Moses received the cadence as part of the Oral Tradition directly from God while in the desert, and this has been dutifully passed down to the present.

To answer your question: it was difficult; especially in language without case. In Hebrew, it required fairly complex intonations in the spoken word to convey difference in mood or tense. As an example of cadence, of which there are about a dozen different maneuvers, consider the eight seconds it takes Mick Jagger to sing Honky in "Honkytonk Women," which is more approximate than what's-her-face singing the Os in "Xs and Os."

  • You forgot about the jots and tittles.
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 18:20
  • @Mick The vowel pointings are considerably later: they were not added to the text until well into the Christian era. Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 18:42
  • Yes, 11th century, and Hebrew publications aimed at native speakers do not use them in modern times
    – Stu W
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 21:58
  • So what about Matthew 5:18 "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." (KJV)? Mediaeval invention, bad translation, or did the scribes of the time use some sort of embellishment?
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 10:12
  • 1
    Um, no, the books were produced in different periods and certainly not in the middle of the desert - and not even as books. They were collected into books much later. Some of the text was historiography, some were myths about (more) ancient times, some constituted a legal codex. Most or all of it was not intended for singing, so there were no incantations. You're back-projecting from what the Torah looks like these days, or has looked like in the past, oh, 1500-2000 years, not sure exactly.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 12:40

No one has yet mentioned letterspacing: inserting narrow space between letters within a word. I've only seen this in print (mostly from Germany) but there's no reason it couldn't be done in handwriting – though stretching the letters themselves might be more natural.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.