Conveying emphasis & tone in text
January 30, 2009 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Does formatted text convey a certain tone of voice to you? My not-really-thought-out take is that bold text is loud, italic text is clearly enunciated, & ALL CAPS TEXT is slow, loud, & monotone. Am I alone?
posted by Pronoiac to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
This started from a very bold Metatalk thread.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:07 AM on January 30, 2009


Yeah, I get pretty much the same tones from bold and italic. All caps is shouting though. LIKE SHOUTING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS TO SOMEONE WHO IS ALL THE WAY AT THE END OF THE HALL!
posted by Meagan at 11:09 AM on January 30, 2009


Even if 100% of the people in this thread agreed with you, these assumptions are not universal. it's not a good idea to rely on these conventions as a way of shading meaning in general. Always assume written text is a low-emotional-bandwidth medium.
posted by GuyZero at 11:21 AM on January 30, 2009


I don't write with those conventions in mind, I will say.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:25 AM on January 30, 2009


You are not alone. However, it is best to keep your audience in mind while making formatting choices.

Italics and caps especially have a variety of meanings. Bold, being the most recent development typographically, is more consistently seen as "loud" or at least "heavy", while italics, for example, can be anywhere from telepathically conveyed, through whisper soft, up to seething and loudly stated, all depending on context.

For me, all caps feel fast and monotone, but that may be habit developed from skimming capslock communities.
posted by Mizu at 11:27 AM on January 30, 2009


Even if 100% of the people in this thread agreed with you, these assumptions are not universal. it's not a good idea to rely on these conventions as a way of sading meaning in general.

I for one have my computer set up to replace all non-hyperlink underlined text with italic text.

So you not only can't rely on people to have the same interpretation of italics - you can't even rely on people seeing italics in the same places.
posted by Mike1024 at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2009


Hrm. Okay, here we go.

I tend to read ALL CAPS as somewhere between a telegram and that part in Fire Walk With Me where David Lynch is yelling "OR-E-GON" into the phone: it is loud, the syllables are spaced out, but there isn't much space left between words or sentences.

Bold is louder, yes, but comes with a certain kind of clarity you get as you lean forward slightly to say it. "Do not take my cupcake." This is skipped in any case where this is purely a font effect for visual clarity and the like.

Italics are a trifle more complicated:
1) If it is a film, novel, or other title, I reproduce it in a normal tone.

2) If it is applied to a new piece of technical terminology, I not only enunciate, I also add a slight pause before the word.

3) If it is applied to what looks like a borrowed word, I do not pause, but do add an appropriate accent. I do not, however, automatically reproduce anything Spanish in that annoying NPR drop-in accent.

4) If it is done merely for a font effect, such as in a wedding invitation, I do not change the tone.

5) If none of the above apply, I simply enunciate.
posted by adipocere at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2009


What about small text?
posted by owtytrof at 11:40 AM on January 30, 2009


italic: enunciate.

bold: louder than italic, marks an stress.

all-caps: It depends. If it's only a word or two, has the same feeling as bold. If everything is written in all-caps I interpret it as yelling very loudly. If someone randomly starts typing in all-caps while I'm chatting with them I get emotionally stressed and tired, even if I know they probably hit the caps lock key by accident and are too lazy to hit it again.
posted by Memo at 11:47 AM on January 30, 2009


I realized I was doing this, then I thought perhaps I should examine my assumptions.

Oh, small text is like when someone makes an aside, but they don't want to interrupt the main conversation. Like whispering, though maybe more like a stage whisper.

I don't associate all formatting with a certain tone - underlining is pretty passe right now because of the usual hyperlink connotations, blink is more like a attention-getting neon sign than anything spoken, etc.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:52 AM on January 30, 2009


If everything is written in all-caps I interpret it as yelling very loudly.

For me this is an Internet-only thing. When I look at the text on a dollar bill, for example, I don't read "THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE" as being shouted at me.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:57 AM on January 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Small text is a misdirection or an aside. I always think of this line from Doctor Who:
"She's very good at tea. Well, when I say "very good" I mean not bad. Well, I say "not bad" - anyway, lead on"
Which in small caps would be: "She's very good at tea. Well, when I say "very good" I mean not bad. Well, I say "not bad" - anyway, lead on"
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:58 AM on January 30, 2009


I look as bold and italics as fairly interchangeable insofar as communicating tone. I look at all caps as shouting and I pretty much only use it for irony. I do confess to having a City of Villains character named CAPTAIN CAPS LOCK. He is feared.

I like using periods after every word for the slow, deliberate monotone:
This. Thread. Delivers.

I also have a weird convention for verbs: asterisks. *slap* *tickle* *cheer*
posted by DWRoelands at 12:07 PM on January 30, 2009


burnmp3s: "If everything is written in all-caps I interpret it as yelling very loudly.

For me this is an Internet-only thing. When I look at the text on a dollar bill, for example, I don't read "THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE" as being shouted at me.
"

Yes, all of the assumptions in my post are internet only.
posted by Memo at 12:10 PM on January 30, 2009


Bold is spoken through clenched teeth, like the warning voice fathers use when they say"one more word and I'm pulling this car over" . All caps is similar to how Fozzie Bear delivers his punchlines. Italics is spoken in a voice like Emily Latella reading Tiny Kingdom.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 12:13 PM on January 30, 2009


O HAY GUISE WHEN I SEE ALL CAPS I THINK OF BOISTEROUS THINGS LIKE LOLCATS WHO ARE ALWAYS ANNOUNCING THEMSELVES LOUDLY, ESPECIALLY WITH NO PERIODS

Also, I once had a not-particularly-smart boss with whom I butted heads all the time. Sometimes she'd send me emails about things I did wrong, and she'd write in all caps for added emphasis. For the longest time I didn't realize she was yelling at me; I just thought she was too dumb to find the caps lock key.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:20 PM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Context is important. Take Dave Secretary's stories. It was described as being like running really fast next to him while he tells the stories and he is shouting and talking fast because that is what you do when you are running and talking. In this case, all caps conveys volume and a certain amount of speed.
posted by cimbrog at 12:26 PM on January 30, 2009


I pretty much agree. I tend to use italics to reflect a sort of intonation that I can't quite describe: "You don't necessarily to wear pants in public." Part of it's emphasis, but not quite the same as, "Do not stick a fork in the electrical outlet."

Another thing that I can't quite sum up is what all caps mean. It's not just shouting, but more of, I HAVE FLIPPED AND AM SCREAMING INCOHERENTLY BECAUSE I AM OFF MY MEDS. It's not careful emphasis of an important point, but UNHINGED RANTING. That said, I indirect work with a lot of senior citizens over the Internet, and have found that a decent amount of them have no idea that all caps are bad.

Small text is an aside, like something I'd say under my breath. Not necessarily a snide comment that would get muttered, but maybe something I'd enclose in parenthesis. I'm glad it's Friday finally. Now if only it weren't raining.

What I catch myself doing more than I should is using question marks to communicate an intonation of uncertainty. Not just, "I think today might be Friday?," but something like, "I really need to go to bed?" after a stupid comment. I see others doing this, so I guess it's not just me? Looking at the preview, my post looks really goofy?
posted by fogster at 12:27 PM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've thought of a use for sub- & superscripts:
Easy come easy go, will you let me go?

Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. Let him go!

Bismillah! We will not let you go. Let him go!

Bismillah! We will not let you go. Let me go!

We'll not let you go - Let me go! We'll not let you go - Let me go -

No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go -

Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for meeeeeee...
posted by Pronoiac at 12:28 PM on January 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


DWRoelands: I, too, use asterisks & verbs like that. It's just simpler sometimes.

*uses asterisks to speak of himself in the third person*
posted by Pronoiac at 12:30 PM on January 30, 2009


You're talking about typographical prosody.

There are also differences in how some languages can convey stress given limitations on fonts (e.g. no "capital letters" in symbolic languages like Chinese).

The study of prosody goes back a decade and more, but studies on online text effects are much younger. If you're really interested, pick up some sociolinguistic works, then move into current research about CMC (computer-mediated communication).
posted by Ky at 12:42 PM on January 30, 2009


P.S.: There's no codified standard for typographical stressors, either, although all-caps in English seem to be consistent for most users. But it's still a learned sociolinguistic behavior, i.e. netiquette.

For example, there was an older user who typed in all-caps on a support forum I used to frequent, and she was quickly shot down by everyone... but she was completely new to the whole online communication thing and didn't realize it was considered rude. It takes some immersion in online text communications before we begin to "hear" it in our own ways.
posted by Ky at 12:46 PM on January 30, 2009


Bold makes me think of something said with a slightly emphatic hand gesture. Italic makes me think of the word being said in the style of Noel Coward... or in a slightly hushed-for-emphasis tone.
posted by Grrlscout at 1:03 PM on January 30, 2009


I speak from personal experience when I say that there is nothing metaphorical about ALL CAPS signifying shouting.

I couldn't begin to count the number of customer support chats I've had that started with the mildly aggrieved customer capitalizing normally and then, after being told politely that they will not get a second courtesy exception to our credit policy, CapsLock-and-loading for the remainder of their threats to organize a boycott, sue, and notify the state Attorney General.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:08 PM on January 30, 2009


Sorry about the noodling. I was way too happy to find a well-known, SFW example, unlike the ones that first come to mind for caps & italics.

These answers are good & thoughtful - I was sure someone else had thought about it, which is good because it's sort of hard to note your own natural cadences & stresses. ("Be natural - now! Don't be self-conscious! Pay close attention!")

fogster: Yes. "You don't have to be crazy to work here..."

Ky: Prosody? Oh, that's good.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:09 PM on January 30, 2009


Back in the last century when on-line communication was a lab full of dumb terminals and the Internet was in black and white, a friend of mine used to reply to all caps with the following;

"Ow! I feel like someone just shouted into my eyes"

So to me all caps will always be ranting, with the added bonus of someone being so dumb as to shout into the wrong sensory organ.
posted by fullerine at 1:24 PM on January 30, 2009


I always thought of ALLCAPS AS ANGRY RED-FACED RANTING.
posted by Mister_A at 1:34 PM on January 30, 2009


Are you familiar with the work of Terry Pratchett? He has several running gags based on this. For example, when Death says something it is always in capital letters, with no speech marks, conveying a ponderous monotone.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:37 PM on January 30, 2009


It really depends on context. It's very socially constructed phenomenon, and also relatively new in our non-spoken communications. But in general, I have the same interpretations as you do. Other cultures may vary somewhat, and I think there was even a recent thread about this.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:22 PM on January 30, 2009


In general, I don't interpret written text aurally. If I would stress a certain word in speech and want to convey that emphasis in a comment on the internet, I use italics, and to the extent that there's a faint subvocalization when I read/write I suppose I "hear" a slight emphasis, but in general I process visual material very differently. I tend to use bold only when there are itals in the vicinity and want to differentiate, and all caps I save for CAPS LOCK DAY.
posted by languagehat at 3:39 PM on January 30, 2009


I think italics are hard to use on the internet. You can use italics to quote a reply, and that's fine. But it's a fine line when you use them when posting on the internet, because somehow it makes you sound like a jackass. Go ahead. Try it. You sound like a jackass. I don't know why that is.
posted by cashman at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2009


« Older How does Power of Attorney Work in New York?   |   Keffiyeh Tying Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.