Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Over-Emphasizing

In speaking, the emphasis of our words comes across through inflection and intonation. In writing, we use italics and quotation marks. "Mom, when will my so-called dinner be ready?" asked Sally, may be written as "Mom, when will my 'so-called dinner' be ready?" asked Sally. Clearly, it's not an innocent question; Sally is yelling at her mother and she doesn't believe that what Mom really made should be categorized as dinner.

So how about those italics? According to Chicago, "good writers use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure." So, if you want to be a good writer, you better do what Chicago says. Using italics too often will cause them to lose their force. Rather, if the surrounding information in a sentence or paragraph, or the placement of a word or phrase in a sentence, gives the reader a clue about the overall tone, no additional mark of emphasis is necessary.

Quotation marks are all too often used for a similar purpose, hoping to spell out for the reader the irony or the emphasis of what they're saying. However, aren't we always told to show rather than tell? Mom's "so-called dinner" doesn't need quotation marks because there's already enough irony and doubt in the word choice. And once again, if the rest of the text hints that Sally is a bit hesitant about her mother's cooking, dinner doesn't need to be quoted either. Only use these if the emphasis would be completely lost without them.

Now, back to our example. None of these so-called emphatic distinctions would be necessary if the rest of the paragraph went something like this:
Sally came home from school absolutely famished. The minute she jumped off the school bus, she ran down her front path and clamored through the front door, heading straight for the kitchen. "Mom, when will my so-called dinner be ready?" Out of nowhere, the stench (a mixture of peas and gravy no doubt), of her mother's concoction hit her nose and pushed her stomach into a somersault.

As with the use of any device for suggesting emphasis, overuse will eventually strip the device of its power. Readers will become annoyed if they're bullied into reading too many sentences full of italics and quotation marks. Then when you really mean it (like I really meant it there), it will be like crying wolf. A word to the wise. Don't overuse devices for emphasis. And Sally, stop complaining about your dinner. Or pretty soon your mother will ask you when you're going to make your own dinner. (Read with emphasis, right?)

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