LawProse Lesson #271: Ban underlining in your legal documents.

LawProse Lesson #271: Ban underlining in your legal documents.

Lawyers have spent decades trying to achieve emphasis in legal documents by underlining. It’s well past time to stop. Underlining is an unsightly relic from the typewriter era, when italics weren’t usually available. With today’s word processors, there’s no reason to use it—at least not 99% of the time. If you’ve read documents with underlined text, you know the problem. Underlining impairs legibility: it obscures some letters and punctuation (esp. the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, y, and the comma [,] and semicolon [;]). If we underline that last parenthetical, you’ll see that the lines run together, making it harder on the eyes: (esp. the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, y, and the comma [,] and semicolon [;]). It’s also a typographic habit that all readers have been conditioned to associate with crude means of producing text, not with professional typography. Typically, you never see it in well-produced books and articles. So what about the 1% of the time when underlining might be justifiable? In very narrow circumstances, when a page is so covered with italics—say, in setting forth case names or book titles—that words italicized for emphasis won’t stand out, you might consider breaking the no-underlining rule. But that would be rare. Apart from the issue of underlining for emphasis, two uses are common and acceptable. First, you’ll find underlining commonly used with hyperlinks and e-mail addresses. But if you use it that way, an underscore in your e-mail or web address—one that stands in for a space—can look like an actual space. Try to avoid that if you can. (A contrasting font color—particularly blue—can indicate a hyperlink without the confusion.) Second, the “track changes” feature typically underlines text added to a document. Other uses of underlining in a tracked document could certainly cause some confusion—yet another reason for avoidance. For those of you concerned about Bluebook style, the 20th edition continues to underline certain text—but, sensibly, doesn’t require it: “So long as you are consistent . . ., you may substitute italics wherever underscoring is used . . . .” (The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation 3 (20th ed. 2015)). Finally, even if you’re quoting a source that uses underlining, it’s okay to substitute italics. (In fact, matching the quotation’s formatting to your own makes for a better-looking document.) Follow the original’s formatting only if there might be a question about what it means—for example, if both italics and underlining appear in the original. Or use italics but explain your changes in a parenthetical note after the citation, just as you would for added emphasis or omitted footnotes. If you harbor the outdated habit of underlining, break it by substituting italics or, better yet, emphasize your points using syntax, not typesetting gimmicks. And that tip leads us to next week’s lesson: How to write forcefully by ending your sentences with punch. Further reading: The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style §§ 3.1–3.2, at 79–80 (3d ed. 2013). Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 78–79 (2010). Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case 122 (2008).

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