Use of bold and italic to highlight importance for some words – semantics is not always passed to screen-readers

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Relying on semantic text highlighting alone can be dangerous as screen readers use to ignore special emphasizing tags to prevent clutter to their users.

I must confess – I have used some of bold and strong and even italic texts on this website too, to affirm the meaning of special parts of text, to accentuate and to emphasize some special words or findings. And I thought that if I would do it semantically it will be accessible too. I was wrong!

Sometimes semantics is just not enough

And strong and italic tags are examples for this as they are not interpreted by all assistive technologies. For example screen readers – they do not expose any special meanings if they find about part of texts wrapped within strong or italic.

This is strange to me and I could even accuse the industry that this is a bug. As I have used semantic elements they should be interpreted “correctly”, was my first reaction.

But there is a reason for this and although we may not agree with it it is quite logical.

Beware – you can also have too much accessibility – and it brings problems to users of assistive technologies

If you have not used a screen-reader very often you could think that adding special pronunciation and announcements to all semantic elements might be a good thing. But we need to think again. Too much verbosity is very problematic to a user that is accessing the page or application with assistive technologies. It means clutter. It means that the main content is being covered by additional layers and could also mean that the point is lost due to other, meta texts that are maybe useful for a sighted user but just adding additional “noise to the signal”.

The other problem is also that strong and italic are overused and therefore only adding more clutter to the content. I’ve even seen some feature requests from some developers wanting to read semantic emphasizing by default in NVDA (opens in new window) and they have got a lot of complaints from their users about it (opens in new window).

Accessibility API is actually not even exposing the strong to assistive technologies (opens in new window), so it would need to be fixed on this level in the first place.

Suggested solutions and proposals

We should use semantic tags sparingly – they are still adding value to sighted users and probably also search engines. But we must make the text understandable even with no emphasizing at all. So WCAG is still encouraging usage of semantic emphasizing tags but assistive technologies are currently not supporting it (at least not by default as it can be enabled via special settings in some screen-readers).

So – do not take them for granted and make it totally clear and understandable without relying on them alone would be my conclusion.

Some additional resources:

Author: Bogdan Cerovac

I am IAAP certified Web Accessibility Specialist (from 2020) and was Google certified Mobile Web Specialist.

Work as Agency co-owner web developer and accessibility lead.

Sole entrepreneur behind IDEA-lab Cerovac (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility lab) after work.

Living and working in Norway (🇳🇴), originally from Slovenia (🇸🇮), loves exploring the globe (🌐).

Nurturing the web from 1999, this blog from 2019.

More about me and how to contact me: