Happy Punctuation Day: How to Properly Typeset Dashes, Quotation Marks and More!

September 24, 2010 | Design Basics

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Happy Punctuation Day! Yes, that’s right, September 24 is National Punctuation Day.

As a graphic designer I frequently cringe at how people misuse punctuation marks. I’m not talking about the grammatical errors, I’m talking about the typographic errors. So I thought I’d go over two of the most commonly misused and misunderstood punctuation groups: dashes/hyphens and apostrophes/quotatation/prime marks.

Most of the problems come from mixing up the easy-to-confuse, but slightly different kinds of marks.

Hyphens, em dashes and en dashes

A hyphen is the smallest of these marks. It is used between compound words or when breaking a word as the type wraps in a column. An example of a compound adjective that is hyphenated is: The three-legged dog limped as he walked. The two words (three and legged) are hooked together by the hyphen. This is because you cannot take either one out and have it still make sense (ie: neither The three dog... or The legged dog… makes sense)

A hyphen is typed by using the key next to the 0 (zero) on the keyboard. Easy.

Em dashes are the widest of these marks and they are used in the place of a comma to separate parenthetical phrases, or show a break within a sentence. They are called em dashes as they are approximately the width of the letter m. An example is: I plan to see the movie about Milton Glaser—arguably one of the finest designers in history—when AIGA does a screening next week.

Em dashes should not have spaces around them. There is not a one-stroke way to create an em dash. In Microsoft Word, if you type two hyphens they will generally get merged automatically (depending on your settings) into an em dash. I use shift-option-hyphen when I’m typing on my Mac. In HTML you can use the alpha code: —

En dashes are between the width of the narrow hyphen and the very wide em dash; approximately the width of the letter n. They are used to show ranges such as pages 2–25 or 7–9:30 pm.

Like the em dash you’ll need to take care to make sure it gets typeset correctly. It should not have spaces around it either. Again, Word will often auto-correct this if you have the right settings in place. When typing, to insert an en dash I type by using the combination option-dash. In HTML use the alpha code –

Hash marks, quotation marks, and apostrophes

Quotation marks compared to prime or hash marks.

Hash and prime marks. A hash mark or a prime is used to show measurement. Most frequently you’ll use these to indicate feet and inches. The basketball player was 6′ 10″ tall. The feet is marked with a single prime and the inches with a double prime. As you can see the mark is essentially straight in comparison to the curly mark of a a quotation mark. There are some differences between a hash mark and a prime (the latter being usually more slanted) but these subtle characters are rarely available in most fonts. The takeaway is that unless you’re talking about inches and feet, don’t use the straight marks.

You may get hash marks by default in a software program unless you have something like “typographers quote marks” or “smart quotes” turned on. Generally in HTML-generated text the hash marks are what you’ll see. For example in WordPress (what I use for this blog) I have to go in and use the special characters menu to override the hash marks. I often don’t do that when quickly putting together a post. Finally, some poorly created fonts do not have the quotation marks, they only have primes, so you can’t get the right curly-looking mark even if you try.

The apostrophes and quotation marks are more rounded looked forms. The apostrophe is used in contractions, don’t, and to show possession the cat’s tail. Double quotation marks are used to frame someone’s speech. A single quotation mark is when there is a quotation with a quote. Julie explained to her parents what the teacher said, “Mrs. Jones told me, ‘You’re a very good student.’”

Quotation marks are not to be used for emphasis. This seems to be a growing and very annoying trend. I’ve seen many signs that read something like: Receive “very” special pricing during our fall sale. When you put that word in quotes, rather than make me think it’s very, very special pricing, I actually imagine someone making those “air quote” marks with their fingers and that your sign is trying to be ironic.

Some gentle reminders

Microsoft Word can assist you, if you use the right settings. But you’ll need to double check your work. For example, if you check “smart quotes” you may end up with curly quotes even when you’re talking about measuring something in feet in inches.

HTML typesetting is very sloppy. If you go back through this post you’ll see numerous places where I’ve used hash marks instead of apostrophes, etc. While this may be acceptable for the always-scanning, quick-reading temperament of web site readers, you’ll want to take much more care with your print collateral and especially your signs where each typographic element is so large.

If you’re making a presentation, designing a brochure or distributing educational materials, and really want to show that you pay attention to detail, then follow these typography rules.

Happy punctuation day!



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