Why underlining could make you look like a dinosaur

21 February 2020

Underlining is still sometimes used in headings or to emphasise words in workplace communications. Doing so could make you, or your organisation, look like a dinosaur.

Although this may be news to you, the trend away from underlining is not a recent phenomenon. The sixth edition of the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (2002), the publication on which most Australian organisations base their writing style guide, recommends against underlining.

To underline or not to underline

There are several compelling arguments for avoiding underlining:

  1. Underlining in electronic documents can be confused with a hyperlink.
  2. Underlining takes up white space between lines, making the lines harder to read.
  3. On some typesets, the underline obscures the letters’ descenders, making the text less legible.
  4. A page with underlined text can appear heavy and cluttered rather than light and airy.

There are several acceptable alternatives to underlining:

  1. Emphasis. To emphasise a word, we recommend bolding the word or words. Alternatively, you could italicise the words; however, this is more common in published works than business communications. Be careful not to overuse bold and never use bold and underlining at the same time.
  2. Headings. For headings, use bold with a hierarchy of font sizes to indicate the different levels of headings. If you use underlining as a design feature under a main heading, leave some space between the type and the underline.

The origins of underlining

Underlining harks back to manual and early electric typewriters where the only option to indicate a heading or highlight words was to underline them or use all caps. Typewriters were phased out of most workplaces in the late 1980s. We now have software that gives us several options for headings and emphasis other than underlining.

There is no longer any reason to use underlining unless you wish to indicate a hyperlink. Continuing to use underlining in your workplace documents, including emails, could make them appear outdated. If you are looking for a retro look as a design feature, underlining may be appropriate. For all other communications, keep it clean and modern.

For an obligation-free assessment of your organisation's writing style, contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638

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