Can Italics Be Used in Plain Text Email Messages?

When you'd like to emphasize a word or phrase in email (or any typed piece, for that matter), setting it in italics is a simple, well-recognized way to do it—as long as you're using HTML or rich text format. If you compose your emails in plain text, however, you can't produce italics. After all, plain text is just that.

There are a few other ways to create that emphasis, though. Most email recipients understand them as workarounds when setting text in italics or other formatting is impossible:

  • A slash character before and after the word or phrase indicates italics. For example:
    /This is important/
  • Enclosing the word or phrase in asterisks signifies a bolded font. For example:
    *This is important*
  • Underline characters before and after the word or phrase are understood to mean underscoring. For example:
    _This is important_

HTML, Rich Text, and Plain Text

In most email clients, you can choose the default format of emails you compose—generally, HMTL, rich text, or plain text. Here are the key differences:

  • HMTL is a tag-based language that browsers use to render text. When you choose HTML as your email format, the recipients of your email see it as you've formatted it, complete with style parameters, links, and graphics. You don't need to know HTML to compose email this way; most email programs provide formatting options in their composition windows, and the HTML tagging happens automatically, behind the scenes.
  • Plain text is just that: characters with absolutely no font, colors, text size, or other formatting information stored along with them. You might be able to set some parameters such as fonts and sizes in some plain text editors, but these affect only the appearance on your own screen.
  • Rich text (RTF) is somewhere between HTML and plain text. RTF allows for basic formatting, such as font, font size, and font style (for example, italics).