Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A rule I sometimes need to break

Books on bookmaking will tell you to avoid underlining words.

In his excellent Book Design and Production, Pete Masterson says: "The typewriter had no way to emphasize type except to underline it. Properly typeset work uses bold and italic for emphasis. Underlines are avoided as they will strike through the descenders of the lower case letters g, j, p, q, and y, making an ugly display."

I use underlines in my books in two cases:

(1) When I want to call particular attention to the actual ("physical") word above the line, not just a meaning or a concept.

In an essay I wrote, "In You’re So Vain, Carly Simon wrote and sang: “You had me several years ago when I was still quite na├»ve.” I wanted to emphasize the word "had" and its implication of possession of a woman by a man, which was an important part of the essay.

(2) When I want to print a URL (Uniform Resource Locator, more commonly known as a web address).

I also switch from the normal serifed body text to a sans-serif font, and put the URL in boldface.

As Pete points out, when an underline intersects with a descender, the result can be ugly. Sometimes you can avoid the problem by choosing another word that has no descenders (not often an option, especially with a URL). Sometimes I've only underlined part of a word. It doesn't work with ugly but it's OK with beauty and even better with Jeep. The effect can be dramatic or confusing and it works better with some fonts than others. Use this technique sparingly.

With some software it's possible to insert a horizontal rule below the word without crashing into the descenders, but this may create extra spacing between lines.

If you are publishing your own book, you can ignore the rules you don't like, but be careful. Just because you have the right to publish an ugly book, it doesn't mean you should.

A self-publisher has an extra burden to produce a quality product, because a bad self-pubbed book reflects badly on other self-publishers. Ironically, the ugliest and worst-written book I've ever seen was self-published, and gives advice to other self-publishers.

The limitations of PCs and the Internet create the need for typographic compromises. Web pages show lots of underlines smashing through descenders and as people get used to the typographic abomination online, it may become more acceptable in print. HOWEVER, just because you can get away with it, it doesn't mean you should.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice. Thank you, Michael. You should write a book about this stuff.