Avoid using underlines (except in hyperlinks and annotations)

The uptake of your ideas depends on good typography. Underlines are not a best practice.

A book with a yellow cover sits on a table, open, with it's spine resting flat.

Good typography is everyone’s job. Readability and usability have a pretty direct impact on how your ideas get taken up.

So if your organization is interested in, for example, knowledge mobilization, then having good typography is a priority.

The thing about underlines is that they actually make words harder to read. But this isn’t the only reason underlines are considered a bad practice that interferes with accessibility.1 2

Underlines are obsolete

Underlining is a practice that is more necessary when doing handwriting, since most people are unable to simply write italics. Additionally, underlining is something that became more popular with the rise of typewriters, since typewriters have no italics or bold function to create emphasis.

The books with the best typesetting have always eschewed underlines.3

In print documents, underlines make text harder to read.4 5

Underline contexts

Underlines have two modern uses and they should be used sparingly. The most common usage is for a hyperlink. Underlines suggest a hyperlink; accessibility guides therefore caution against using an underline in other ways.

Underlined text on a page looks like a link so users may try to select it with no success. Underlined text is also not semantic meaning it really doesn’t tell the user anything. If they are listening to the page with a screen reader, there is no difference between plain text and underlined text.

Boise State University, Web Accessibility

Interestingly, in HTML5, the purpose of an underline is to point out misspelled or unarticulated words. Like in editing, underlining is a technique for annotating.

But this is it. As a hyperlink or a non-textual annotation.

If you find underlines in your document, ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary. If not, underline (heh) and delete them.

How to get over underlines

In the vast majority of cases, if you want to provide emphasis for certain words or phrases, using bold or italics will be more effective.

I’ve also noticed that many people use underlines instead of using proper headings. Headings are semantically meaningful and all documents benefit from descriptive headings.

Notes

  1. Read “Preparying documents for visually impaired people” by the Macular Society.
  2. See also “Design for readability” by Harvard University, a digital accessibility resource.
  3. More reading on this here, here, here, and here.
  4. Don’t use underlines in print.
  5. Underlines interfere with regular text in part because they have uses in other important contexts including editing, and hyperlinking.