Emphasize *this*

John Gruber on the rise in the use of *asterisks* for emphasis in the plaintext age: "Neither appeared in print until the mid-’60s, when *sigh* began appearing. But *cough* doesn’t appear until 1987. Both though, exploded in usage starting in 1997, and have risen steadily ever since. So I think I’m correct that this use of asterisks has been largely driven by Internet punctuation idioms."


  1. This seems… inaccurate, at best. The asterisks seem to have replaced parens in defining /asides/ and /actions/, not italics and emphasis. Those little slashes I just used are the plaintext emphasis equivalent that indicates italics. *sighs*

    Would italics have been appropriate there? Would it have resulted in clearer communication? I doubt it. Sure, they are used for emphasis, as in “a change of voice or style”, but they are used in their own very special type of emphasis. I can’t even actually think of italics ever being used for this purpose – does anyone have exampled?

    I *have* seen it used in place of bold, though, for emphasis. But the specific examples he cites seem to fall outside of that usage.

    1.  I agree – I think the addition of actions to printed text probably came about concurrently with the use of asterisks to separate them. Although I have seen asterisks used for emphasis, asterisks around things like “cough” and “sigh” are not for emphasis, but to indicate that this is an action performed in real life by the narrator.

    2. Grubers’ own quite popular Markdown markup language uses asterisks for emphasis. I imagine using slashes for same would have been a LOT harder to parse.

      1. Well, like I said, people DO use *these* for simple emphasis sometimes, so that’s fine. HIs examples seem to all point to a different use for them, though, one that doesn’t overlap with the way italics has been used at all. Similar to how we used “quotes” for simply emphasis where bold or italics or asterisks might arguable suffice, but we also use them to say things like “I’m not really sure what to put in this quote”. Which is still, sure, it’s emphasis, it’s a change in voice, but it’s not replacing italics and has a full meaning all it’s own.

    3. I agree, the examples, like sigh and cough seem to be going down the branch of usage more related to the exaggerations-for-humor such as *flips desk* *runs out of room*, or *cries softly to self* implying more of a stage direction than emphasis.

      1. You may be right, but I need to think about it for a while.  *Exit upstage right. Lights. Curtain.*

        1. Yes.  It screams, “If you’re going to bother to emphasize AND shout, you might as well come over here and tell me to my face.”  ‽Sheesh‽

  2. This was one convention in the seventies when we only had seven and eight bit ASCII. There weren’t enough characters for additional alphabets, so instead we used *italics* and _underline_.

    1.  You kids and your fancy seven bit ASCII…who really needs separate upper and lower case in your character set?  If you really need them you can toggle between them with an upper case or lower case character and fit your character set into six bits.  FIELDATA should be good enough.

  3. The convention I have observed is that asterisks are used for emotes – that is, to delineate actions, such as :


    — whereas /this/ usage is emphasis-emphasis, THIS usage is urgent-emphasis, _this_ usage is strong-emphasis, and -this- usage is ironic-emphasis (also –this– and —this— and this),

    “this” as the famous “scare-quotes”, delineating mockery and sarcasm,

    Square brackets, XML tags, hashtags notating aspects and attributes.

    1. And ~this~ indicates a musical emphasis and indicates a translation! Except here, because there’s a weird enforced closed-tag-matching-script running, hah, so it is about to look weird.

  4. I remember being on a band’s email discussion list in the late-90s, in the days before forums became popular, and we always used *asterisks* in the place of italics, as the emails were all in plain-text. 

  5. If you use his own strategy and add other terms to the Ngram viewer, you can check some of these ideas.

    It turns out that it definitely was *not* just for asides and actions.

    If you run this view….


    Then you will see that *not* dominates all the others, and *really* and *must* were bigger than *sigh* and *cough* until about 2003.

    I would agree with him that this is heavily Internet-driven, in that we needed alternatives for a “shift in style or voice” when we had neither italics, or even the underline you could easily use in cursive writing. The sudden rise in *sigh* and *cough* would, I think, connect with the widespread use of informal text communications — not just email, but text messaging and instant messaging, where the users wanted not just an informal tone, but a conversational tone.

    1.  Yeah, like I said – they definitely are used for emphasis, but all of his examples were (and thanks to the one who remembered the term) stage directions! With the large amount of appropriate examples, it’s weird that he went with those.

      1.  I’ve pretty much universally used asterisks for emphasis, while noting sounds, asides and tacet actions in the form of ::facepalm:: ::sigh:: ::thud:: and so on.

  6. It was very common in the BBS days to use extra characters to mean *bold* _underline_ and /italics/. A proper client would even display the text with the proper emphasis.

  7. I’d be willing to bet that “prior art” exists in the comic book world.  Particularly when lettering was all hand done (instead of the current typefaces that look like hand lettering), and nearly all caps, there were a lot of plaintext emphasis items.  I know that things such as “” (with a footnote “translated from the Russian”) existed in the late 70s.  I’d be willing to be you can find *cough* and *sigh* in Archies much older than that.

    1. Fair to say anyone who says “click images to embiggen” probably favours a flexible approach to language. *nods in approval*

  8. AFAIK  asterisks for bold and underbars for italics are semi-ancient galley proof designators, used by editors and publishers long before electronic digital communication came into being.

    1. Nope. I started in publishing just as electronic prepress was taking off, but I still marked up at least a dozen galley proofs on repro using a blue wax pencil. It’s underline for italics (with ital circled in the margin) and wavy underline for bold (bold circled in the margin).

      I can’t say for certain that other houses didn’t do it differently, but my example is about as industry-standard as it gets.

  9. Back in the 80s, one of the University of Michigan academic mainframe’s most popular applications was CONFERII (Confer 2), a massive multi-user social networking system.  It supported a huge number of discussion boards, and the mainframe was hooked up to GTE Telenet (later Sprintnet) and Autonet for worldwide access.

    On that system, printing was accomplished by copying a file to a pseudo-file called *PRINT* – and there was a word processing system (STAT:TEXTEDIT) that used the _underline_ convention and may have used the *BOLD* convention.  You could also use something called *BATCH* to submit sets of commands for later execution, and could request access to 9-track tapes and create your own *TAPENAME* of your choosing.

    While this academic mainframe’s OS (MTS) wasn’t widely distributed – it was (slightly), and it was open to everyone. The people who used this system went on to a great deal of things.

    While I doubt that *PRINT* was the primary player in this convention of *BOLD*, I think it had an influence.  A supporting character, as it were.

  10. “Scare quotes” have been around since at least WWII where quotes around a word were used for emphasis. The asterisk seems like it’s doing the same thing only less confusing with quote mark for quotes.

  11. I recall seeing *sigh* in apas. I commented on it around 1980, when I thought it was a mindless cliche, but there was apparently plenty of life left in it. Five years before that, we were using abbreviations in places that would later take emoticons, like S,AS (Smiling, Always Smiling) as the “please don’t hit me for saying this” smiley face. “Ook” and “Ook, Ook” stood in for ROFL and LOL and so on, at least in the small circles I was in.

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