How to Mimic Bold Letters in Plain Text Emails

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

Mimicking Bold Text in a Plain Text Email

Heinz Tschabitscher

Plain text messages, by their very nature, do not allow formatting to make bold text. However, you can use some plaintext characters to make your words pop out on the page and mimic boldface even when the message format limitations don't support it.

You might use a bold letter alternative if an email message is stuck in 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, are some other reasons to need a boldface substitute.

Make Your Words Stand Out

The best boldface alternative for plain text is to use asterisks. What you want to do is surround the text with asterisks like in the examples below, to give them something to stand out among the rest of the words.

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 effect is only relevant if you use the bold lettering trick on a small group of words. The ideal number of words to keep within the asterisks should be one to four. Any more than that and readers might even forget that the first asterisk exists until they see the second one. In other words, putting an asterisk at the very beginning and end of a 2,500-word email won't have the same effect as what you see above.

Depending on the email client that you or the email recipient is using, 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 option is to use hyphens or even double hyphens to set off and bring more 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 Bold Letters

You might be tempted to uppercase letters — making them all caps — to give a sense of urgency or draw attention, but capital letters have always been reserved for loudness or yelling.

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

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

If you decide to use asterisks over hyphens, or vice versa, do not combine the two in the same message. Mixing formatting creates confusion for readers, who won't know your intent in stressing the words.

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