LawProse Lesson #86
What’s wrong with underlining in briefs, contracts, and other legal documents? ANSWER: Underlining is a holdover from the era of typewriters. It’s crude and unsightly. Why else would you recoil from a published book that contained underlining? Admit it: you would. Any publisher that typeset a book with underlining would seem like a fly-by-night operation. Underlining obscures part of some characters: the descenders on the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, and y. It also bumps into commas and semicolons. On the word-processors we use today, the underline is ridiculously close to the baseline of the type. And it’s too thick — thicker than the strokes of most fonts we use for office documents. All this is more than just bad aesthetics. Underlining hurts legibility: underlined text is noticeably harder to read, especially in big doses. The obscured letters and punctuation require more effort to see. But if it’s unsightly, doesn’t that draw the eye and create emphasis? Well, it does that all right. But emphasis should not create negative attention. While wonderful in their day, typewriters were limited to a single type, invariably roman. Instead of the elegant italics that typographers used as complementary fonts, typists had a key for underscoring. That was the only way (besides using all-caps) to show emphasis. But those days are gone forever. So should be underlining. Sources: Garner’s Modern American Usage 271 (3d ed. 2009). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 69-70 (2d ed. 2006). Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 122 (2008). Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 78-79 (2010).