Internet, Web, and Other Post-Watergate Concerns

Q. We’re trying to find a definitive style for representing file names, commands, and computer buttons (e.g., click “exit”) in text. For file names, for example, I’ve found quotation marks, italics, all caps, boldface . . . you name it, including no differentiation at all. How would you suggest treating a file name in a sentence such as “Open the readme.rtf file before continuing with the installation”? What about commands in a sentence such as “Click on File and select Open”?

A. For commands, icons, keys, etc., an important consideration is to match the capitalization of the software or hardware being invoked. Fortunately such items tend to be capitalized, which helps to set terms off from the run of text without introducing italics or other distinctions:

Choose Save As, under File (or press F12), before you make another move.

You can assign shortcuts to a Ctrl+Alt key combination to launch most Windows applications.

File names may be set in italics or in a different font. An elegant alternative is to relegate them to parentheses:

Open the third chapter (John Doe and the problem of anonymity.wpd) and run the cleanup macro (clean_me).

Words to be typed can be set in bold or in a different font, or both, like this:

Type vacation stop at the prompt, then hit Enter.

Quotation marks, unless they are an explicit element of a command or label, should be avoided—though they may be helpful, used consistently, to delimit file names (which may or may not have telltale extensions and even if they do may be impossible to distinguish from the run of text, as in the WPD example above). Consistency is the key—set up a style sheet tailored to your needs (e.g., a software manual would generally merit greater use of bold and italics to distinguish commands from labels and file names), and stick with it.