How to Mimic Bold Letters in Plain Text Emails

Make text stand out even when you can't use bold text

What to Know

  • Surround the text you want to emphasize with asterisks to make words stand out. For example, "I am *so* happy to see you!"
  • Use hyphens or double hyphens to set off and bring attention to a few words. For example, "You --definitely-- have to come with me Friday!"
  • Avoid using all caps to emphasize a word or words, as it's seen as yelling. And, don't combine asterisks and hyphens.

This article explains how to create a bold letter alternative in a plain text email using plain text characters. You'll make your words pop and mimic boldface even when the message format limitations don't support it.

Use Asterisks to Make Your Words Stand Out

The best boldface alternative for plain text is to use asterisks. Surround the text you want to emphasize with asterisks to make them stand out from the rest of the words. Example include:

  • I will *not* go with you after what you said to me!
  • My leg hurts *so incredibly bad*.
  • You won't believe it: I got *fired* today...

This approach is effective only if you limit the bold lettering trick to a small group of words. The ideal number of words to place within the asterisks is one to four. If you use any more than that, the readers might forget that the first asterisk exists until they see the second one. In other words, putting an asterisk at the beginning and end of a 500-word email won't cause any of the text to stand out from the rest.

Depending on the email client that you or the email recipient uses, asterisks might end up appearing as bold letters automatically. This is true in some text messaging applications that don't have a formatting toolbar.

Another Way to Add Emphasis to Text

Another option is to use hyphens or double hyphens to set off a few words and bring attention to the text. They're not as common as asterisks for making boldface text, but there are no hard-and-fast rules here. The only goal is to convey bold text in whatever way possible.

  • You --definitely-- have to come with me this weekend.
  • I'm not sure who told you but --I will find out-- soon enough.
  • That new cafe is open. --Want to go with me?--

How Not to Make Faux-Bold Letters

You might be tempted to use only uppercase letters, making them all caps, to give a sense of urgency or draw attention to your words, but using all capital letters is frowned upon on the internet because it is interpreted as yelling. For example:

  • There's ALWAYS a line at the post office!
  • I just got a new job! YAY!

Other characters such as slashes and underscores could be used instead of asterisks, but those have traditionally been reserved for mimicking underlined text and making an italics imitation.

If you decide to use asterisks rather than hyphens or vice versa, don't combine the two in the same message. Mixing formatting creates confusion for readers, who won't know your intent in stressing the words. For example:

  • This is *most definitely* a --bad-- example of how to make bold text in a plain text message.

Why You May Need a Bold Text Alternative

Plain text messages, by their very nature, don't allow formatting to make bold text. You might use a bold letter alternative if an email message is confined to plain text mode because of how the sender wrote the message, or maybe your email client doesn't support formatting options. Adding bold text to the Subject field of an email or in an SMS message is another incidence in which you might want to use a boldface substitute.

In HTML, text can be formatted as bold or italic for emphasis. The size and color of the text can be changed, and it can be formatted as a hyperlink. None of that is possible in plain text, but you can use accepted workarounds to make some text stand out.

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