Rhetorical question about formatting devices?

Subject: Rhetorical question about formatting devices?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 16 Oct 2001 11:24:32 -0400

Jessica Nealon, wondering about how to format information for various
purposes, wonders: <<Is there some industrious writer with ties to layout
design that are working on something other that bold, italics, underline,
and the courier font?... I need to emphasize one word to convey conceptual
understanding. Bold? That's for anything the user clicks. Italics? That's
for anything in a drop-down list or to describe the result of an action.
Some writers here still use it for emphasis too, but I think it's confusing
to use one highlighting device to both represent and explain the

I think the source of your problem lies in using different formatting for
buttons and choices from lists or results. If you're using boldface to
represent something selected or clicked in an interface, you should probably
use it consistently for both the functions you mentioned. The goal of
formatting is to distinguish certain words from the surrounding text, not to
create a formatting scheme for its own sake. Italics is used (by convention)
to emphasize a word, including foreign words or phrases in running text, so
I'd probably restrict it to this familiar use. My problem with using bold is
that it stands out and makes the page look ink-spattered, particularly in a
button- or menu-heavy interface.

You wondered about alternative conventions, so here's mine:
- menus: Open the File menu. [no emphasis other than to parallel the
standard practice in English of capping a proper noun--the name of the menu;
where the menu name has multiple words, which is rare, cap both words: Open
the File Destruction menu.]
- menu options: Select "What a peculiar menu choice". [quotes used in the
traditional sense to indicate that the phrase is being used as a single
- buttons: Click the "Right" button. [quotes used to indicate that a word
isn't being used in its traditional sense; in this case, I mean that the
button's label is "Right", not that the user should click the righthand
- emphasis: Do this _now_ or kiss your data goodbye. [italics for emphasis]

I'm not suggesting that this is the most elegant way to format things, but
it's both self-consistent and consistent with standard English usage for
quotes, italics, and suchlike. Moreover, it seems to have met with broad
acceptance from my readers thus far.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
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