_ First

surprisedYou could be forgiven if you found the title of this post perplexing.  However it summarizes an important and powerful method of providing focus in what you’re doing.  Depending on the method you used to get here, you may even have not seen the true title of this post.

Yes, the title is “_ First“.  The key actor here is that humble character, the underscore.  In general it’s a character that gets no respect.

Here is what Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, has to say about the Underscore.

The underscore [ _ ] (also called understrike, underbar, low line, underdash, lower part of z or low dash) is a character that originally appeared on the typewriter and was primarily used to underline words. To produce an underlined word, the word was typed, the typewriter carriage was moved back to the beginning of the word, and the word was overtyped with the underscore character.

Clearly there are some who do find it has some significance.  Indeed Dave Rutledge was obviously quick off the mark in getting the Twitter user name @_.  Check out his Twitter profile to confirm. https://twitter.com/_.  However he is clearly in a minority.  In general, the character is rarely used.

underscore emoticon


One field where it has some usage is in the creation of emoticons using characters.  In the Wikipedia list of these, you will find the following examples which use the underscore.  As is mentioned, it is much more frequent in Eastern emoticons.

(^_^)  happy
(>_<)  troubled
(^_-)  wink
(=_=)  tired
(-_-)zzz  sleeping


The Weakness of _

If we were trying to get more respect for the underline character, it suffers from one great weakness.  The normal default in showing hyperlinks in online articles is to underline the whole URL.  This signals to the reader that by clicking on that underlined word, they will transfer to the web page which is the target of the hyperlink.  Since the whole link is underlined, it is impossible to detect any underline character.

For example let’s look again at the Twitter profile for Dave Rutledge we mentioned above.  Using the normal default underlined URL, the link for his profile is https://twitter.com/_.  You could be forgiven for not realizing that there is an underline character at the end as well as a total underline under the URL.  The underline character is masked by the general underline.  In many applications, that is a real disadvantage for the underline character.

The Strength of _

Given that major weakness of the underline character, is there any compensating factor that could make it more useful.  There really are two strengths that the underline character has:

  • It is there but is unobtrusive.
  • For characters acceptable in file or folder names, it comes first alphabetically.

These two strengths taken together make this an ideal character with which to start a file name.  Other characters that come early on alphabetically sometimes have other functions in particular software programs and thus cannot be used in file names.  This is true for ?, ^ and * for example.

Labeling Folders and Files

Many software programs such as Windows Explorer will automatically produce lists of folders or files in alphabetical order.  This provides a rapid way of getting to important documents if you start their name with an underline.  As mentioned the underline is unobtrusive, so the list of file names will look perfectly natural with the ones you are particularly concerned about coming first in the list.  If you wish to be well organized, this approach is very powerful and will speed up your office tasks enormously.

An example of this approach can be seen in the article, Three Power Tips For Gmail Ninjas, on the SMMbc blog. It is particularly appropriate when you will hold files or messages temporarily in a folder until you have completed some action on them. Once the task is completed then you just remove them from that temporary folder and will see only those tasks yet to be done.

If you have never tried this approach, why not rename some of the folders or files you use often by sticking an underline character at the start of their name.  Within a few hours you will probably be asking yourself why you did not do this a long time ago.

If you have other ways of using the underline character that improve your office productivity, why not add them in the comments.  It is time to stop overlooking this humble character, the underline, because it can have an effect much bigger than its visual impact.

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