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Is it okay to use the <i> tags when you want to italicize words, or do you HAVE to get used to the <em> tags?
It depends on what the instructions ask for. If
<em></em> is expected then use it.
In production (a web facing the internet) we take into account search and accessibility concerns.
<strong> are considered more important than
<b> by search engines. We need to consider if what we are italicizing is a visual matter, or a matter deserving emphasis. Bold text has the same general consideration.
Users with limited or no vision depend upon assistive technology such as a screen reader to "view" our content. If we pepper the text with EM's and STRONG's, the screen reader will be yelling at the listener since these tags trigger a change of voice in the SR.
On the whole, we should consult a writing style guide for best practice recommendations. When we only wish to emphasize a word or short phrase, then it is okay to use EM or STRONG, as apply. If an entire passage deserves emphasis then these should not be used. Use a BLOCKQUOTE, instead, to single it out.