Bolds, Italics, and Underlines

When making course materials, we often want to emphasize particular points in writing. There are a lot of ways to do this: bolds, italics, underlines, or some combination of the above.

When writing a lot of materials, it’s easy to lose track and use emphasis formatting interchangeably, but a more consistent use of emphasis can make reading material cleaner and easier to read, and help students organize their thoughts more effectively.

There are lots of ways to put together some consistent guidelines for using emphasis formatting, but this post covers some ideas I’ve used (or want to use) in making course material.

Bold: technical terms in slides

When I go through a long set of slides, bold text tends to stand out to me the most (over italics or underlines). Since lecture slides are often introducing new material for the first time, I like to use bolds to emphasize technical terms, i.e. terms that students are not familiar with, but should know by the end of the lecture.

CS 161 Summer 2021, Lecture 16 is one example of this philosophy. If you tab through quickly and just focus on the bold words, you can get a pretty good overview of what terms you need to take away from this lecture, and if you see a term that you’re not familiar with, you can slow down and read through the relevant slides. In hindsight, “provides” and “relies upon” aren’t really technical terms and wouldn’t be bolded under this philosophy, but that just goes to show how it can be difficult to always remember to follow a consistent format.

Bold: takeaways in writeups

When reading a wall of text, it’s easy to get distracted or lost, so I like to bold key phrases or sentences to serve as guideposts through the writeup. When skimming a long writeup, bolds also give a built-in summary of what your writeup is about, and as with bolds in lecture slides, I find it easy to spot bolds in a long block of text.

In fact, I’ve been trying to follow this philosophy in my posts on this blog.

Italics: inline emphasis

Italics are nice for when you need to provide some emphasis within a phrase in your material, but don’t want that emphasis to pop out at readers who are skimming your material. For example, you might want to say “do not assume that the Tor nodes are malicious.” If you used bold for do not, a reader skimming would see those two words pop out at them, but they don’t make any sense without the context of the rest of the phrase. If this were a really important phrase (e.g. an assumption on an exam), you could consider the previous philosophy and bold the entire phrase, but if you’re just trying to emphasize that this is not an assumption you can make, I think italics are most appropriate.

No bold italics

If bolds and italics each have their own defined purpose, there is rarely a reason you should need to both bold and italicize something. If something is bold, there’s already enough emphasis on it, and I don’t really think adding additional italics helps with anything except creating an eyesore.

Bold: action items on assignments

This is one I’m going to try out this semester. When reading a long project spec with lots of background information and tips, it’s often easy to skip over a task that you have to do. One way to solve this is to potentially bold every verb related to an action item in your spec.

I’m sure this idea has been around for a long time, but I first noticed it with the EECS 151 assignment specs, which (partially) implement this philosophy. I think I would extend this idea further by not bolding anything except the action items, so that someone skimming can get a clear list of tasks to complete.


I haven’t really found a use for underlines yet…I don’t find the aesthetic particularly great compared to bolds and underlines, and I haven’t found a need for three distinct categories of emphasis yet. I’m definitely open to hearing potential uses for underlines, though!