Tuesday 02 July 2002

A matter of emphasis

Since Professor Salo is now taking questions about markup, here’s one that’s been bothering me for a while: what are the appropriate uses of the bold/strong and italic/emphasis elements?

The O’Reilly HTML Reference that comes installed in Dreamweaver says:

The STRONG element is one of a large group of elements that the HTML 4.0 recommendation calls phrase elements. Such elements assign structural meaning to a designated portion of the document. A STRONG element is one that contains text that indicates a stronger emphasis than the EM element. Whereas an EM element is typically rendered as italic text, a STRONG element is generally rendered as boldface text.

Dreamweaver’s preference setting to “Use <strong> and <em> in place of <b> and <i>” circumvents the fact that these elements clearly have different purposes—as the manual of the Dreamweaver course I occasionally teach suggests:

My style manual suggests that among the “well-established conventions for the use of italics” are titles (books, movies, etc), ship names, scientific names of plants and animals, technical terms and terms being defined, citations, and foreign words not yet absorbed into English. But it also recommends italics for “words used in special senses or to which a particular tone or emphasis is being applied.” The <em> tag seems specifically designed for this latter use.

So, here’s an example sentence:

Traditionally, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji has been regarded as the purest expression of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, which Ivan Morris says “roughly corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pathos of things.” However I did not realize until recently that the term mono no aware was invented by the 18th century critic Motoori Norinaga to describe what he regarded as a “pure, emotional [uniquely Japanese] response to the beauty of nature, the impermanence of life, and the sorrow of death” (Brian Hoffert).

In this sentence I have used the <i> tag for The Tale of Genji (book title), mono no aware (Japanese phrase), and lacrimae rerum (Latin phrase). I’ve used the <em> tag for invented and uniquely Japanese (emphasized word and phrase).

I look forward to reading Professor Salo’s opinion on the correct usage of these elements. I’m hoping she might also explain whether the stronger emphasis offered by the <strong> tag is <edited>best reserved for expressions of passion, fire, and other intense emotions or whether (to quote the style manual):

…bold or colored type is generally the first thing to be noticed on a page or screen and so can be read out of context. Careful thought should therefore be given to precisely what is treated in this way.

I suspect that what they might be saying here, in their cautious way, is Don’t get carried away by your emotions.</edited>




Posted by: Burningbird on 2 July 2002 at 11:46 AM

Well, that little edit just saved your butt. iI guess I won't do that scathing little post full of "...passion, fire, and intense emotions" after all.

Posted by: Burningbird on 2 July 2002 at 11:59 AM

I spend quite a bit of time lurking on a couple of good mailing lists (css-discuss and webdesign-l) where this very topic rears its head from time-to-time.
Your distinction for i and em agree quite readily with the general consensus in the lists.
There is much less agreement on b and strong. In fact, the relationship is clearer between em and strong, which really mean emphasis and strong emphasis respectively. So, strong is for where em doesn't convey enough information.
My feeling is that b should be reserved for places where bold is the well-established convention. Not being familiar with accepted styles, I can't think of a time I've purposely used b lately.

Posted by: Bill Simoni on 2 July 2002 at 12:49 PM

Since HTML 2.0, I've taken to using the CITE tag to note titles of books, recordings, etc.. It italicizes in most visual browsers, too.

Also, it's my understanding of the HTML 4.01 spec that phrases in another language should have a lang attribute in their surrounding tag (usually Q).

Posted by: Mark Gardner on 3 July 2002 at 02:26 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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