By Christopher Phin, from Creative Bloq –

In typography, as in grammar, there is no objective ‘right’ way to do things; there are just conventions, and these conventions change over time. And what’s more, while we could argue that the examples we’re about to give are indeed mistakes – that is, things that are wrong – it’s also true that there are often technical or style reasons to make them deliberately; we do on Creative Bloq all the time.

But enough with the caveats. They won’t stop people accusing us of being anal-retentive, reactionary, quixotic idealists (at best) in the comments anyway, so what the hell; bring it on!

Bonus points if you can identify the problem with each example before we explain it. The more points you have at the end, the more fun you are at parties!

Note: Due to technical limitations (and due to delicious irony) some characters in this post may not display properly depending on your browser and platform. Suggestions on how to type characters are confirmed correct for UK Mac keyboards.

01. Quote marks

Yes, yes we are. For example, we’ll now point out that you should of course have used proper typographic quote marks above – “You’re a bunch of type nazis”.

Because supporting “, ”, ‘ and ’ would have added complexity to typewriters, we just decided to simplify with a single symbol for single and a single symbol for double quotes that could be used everywhere, and this ‘dumb quotes’ convention stuck. (If you ever doubt how influential typewriters are even today, not only could we point you to the persistent QWERTY layout, but you’ll also see on many keyboards that the staggered grid allows for a bar to lead straight up from each key, like on a typewriter.)

Bonus fact: you use «guillemets» (not ‘greater-than and less-than’ chevrons!) in French and Spanish, and „this style“ in German. As always, Wikipedia can out-pedant anyone on this topic.

To type proper typographic quotes on a Mac, press ⌥[, ⌥⇧[, ⌥] and ⌥⇧]. Of course, you could let your software convert from dumb to smart quotes for you (check under Edit>Substitutions) but be careful, as the next mistake shows.

02. Apostrophes

You might think that allowing your computer to make your dumb quotes smart absolves you of all responsibility, but the problem is that computers can sometimes be a bit too smart for their own good. One of the common mistakes computers make is to use an opening single quote where an apostrophe (or closing single quote; there’s really no difference) should be used. If you’re talking about the ’80s, say, many computers would be tempted to write ‘80s instead, because it thinks you’re starting to write a sentence ‘in quote marks’. To fix this, make sure you type ⌥⇧] manually. The opposite can be true too these days; start a sentence with a double-digit number and some systems will convert a single dumb quote to ’, even if you then end the sentence with another quote, such as in ’10 years ago’. Here, manually typing ⌥] is necessary.

‘Smart’ computer systems can land you in other trouble too. For example, once you’ve got your eye in, you might often see something like this online: “The point size for body copy wouldn’t normally be bigger than 11.5″. The problem there is that a smart CMS has decided that because that quotation ends with a number, it should convert the double dumb quote you typed into a double prime (″) rather than the closing quote marks (”), since it’s assumed you meant inches. What’s a double prime, you ask? We’re glad you did.

03. Double prime

You might be congratulating yourself because you knew that dumb quotes were wrong for enclosing quotations, and that the correct use of the straight ‘ and ” is to denote feet and inches. Your smugness is misplaced, sadly. In fact, those glyphs really, typographically speaking, serve no purpose. Feet and inches should be represented by ‘primes’ – a single for feet, a double for inches. So 6’ 6″ is wrong, but 6′ 6″ is correct. Of course, not all fonts have primes characters, but all that means is that you should be using better fonts!

It’s easy to type primes if you’re running OS X 10.9 or later; just tap the space bar while holding ctrl and and a character palette will pop up. You don’t have to know where to look; start typing ‘primes’ and the characters will appear. On earlier systems, choose Special Characters from the Edit menu, and in apps such as InDesign, browse the Glyphs palette.

04. Fractions

Ah, so you got the primes right that time, but what the hell is with those fractions? Properly, fractions should be individually typeset – often using LaTeX formatting – but even if that’s not technically possible most fonts have dedicated glyphs for common vulgar fractions. (‘Vulgar’ is a technical term there, not a synonym for ‘common’; keep politics out of typography. Actually, technically, mathematically, ‘vulgar’ is a synonym for ‘common’ but we’re in danger of disappearing down the wrong rabbit hole entirely.) So by calling up the character palette again you can search for ‘fraction’ (or specifically ‘half’, ‘quarter’, ‘third’ and so on) and so correctly – or at least more correctly than using normal numbers separated by a slash, like an animal – render ‘3½″ and 5¼″ disks’.

05. Multiplication/by

This is a particularly subtle one in some fonts, but there is a proper glyph for that ‘x’ which stands in for ‘by’, so the above should read ‘5120×2880 pixels’ rather than ‘5120×2880 pixels’. The particular Unicode character we’re using there is the multiplication sign – and yes, you could argue we’re co-opting it here – so be sure to search for that in the character palette rather than ‘x’. Searching for ‘x’ shows up many different variants, including multiple mathematical, algebraic  ‘x’ symbols, but not the multiplication symbol you actually want.

06. Interpunct

Well, there’s no arguing with the sentiment there (and the price is correct at least at the time of writing), but there is a typographical faux pas in that sentence. We’ve lost the battle on this one, we know, but properly the decimal point shouldn’t be a full stop or period, but should be an interpunct, thus: £29·99. This is only true in Britain – although possibly some other countries too, especially those that were British colonies in 1971 when decimalisation struck – but technically you were only supposed to use a full stop when technical limitations meant an interpunct was unavailable.

Happily, these days, should you wish to render prices correctly (as surely any good Brit would wish to do), you can easily get an interpunct by typing ⌥⇧9.

07. Degrees

And it’s literally freezing in the UK as we write this, but the thing we’re specifically complaining about here is that degrees symbol, because is isn’t a degrees symbol at all. Now pay attention, 007: 24º is wrong, 24° is right. That first character is an ordinal indicator for masculine (the feminine variant is ª), and you can read about their use on Wikipedia.

In some fonts, it’s actually really obvious that it’s not a degrees symbol because the O will have an underline, but that’s not common and it’s easy to see that someone, mashing a keyboard till they find a degrees symbol, would think they’ve found it; you get it by typing ⌥0, which makes some kind of sense.

In fact, the degree symbol’s shortcut is actually somewhat logical too. To get a bullet (that’s this character: •) on a Mac, you type ⌥8, and to get a degrees symbol, it’s ⌥⇧8. Conceptually, then, you can think of it a little like a ‘superscript bullet’.

08. Hyphens and dashes

Now, this is tricky, and depends very much on style, but we should all be able to agree that the above is wrong. Hyphens specifically and only should be used in words like ‘anal-retentive’ and ‘super-annoying’ or for splitting words across lines in hyphenation; you shouldn’t even use them for a minus symbol, as there’s a specific, slightly longer Unicode character for that: −. (We’re not making this up, we promise.)

But while hyphens in the sentence above are definitely wrong, there is no definitely right. Convention would have it that in the UK you’d use en-dashes – like this – while in the US—where everything is bigger—the longer em-dashes are favoured. Note too that in the first example, there are spaces either side of the dashes, but not in the second; that’s deliberate.

In fact, thanks to the fractal nature of pedantry, you can also say that this is still wrong, since if you’re being super-correct there should be hairline spaces around the em-dashes. Or possibly thin spaces, which are technically thicker. But let’s not split hairs.

You type an en-dash with ⌥- and em-dashes with ⌥⇧-.

(Bonus: you should sometimes use an en-dash where you might think a hyphen is called for, when you’re dealing with attributive compounds.)

09. Asterisks and stars

The noble asterisk – at least as noble as Astérix – while technically being a star should nevertheless not be used as a star when you’re talking about ratings; its main purpose these days is to direct you to a caveat somewhere else on the page. Happily, there are filled and empty – technically, black and white – stars in the Unicode table, and they’re pretty commonly supported. Thus you could say that this post is ★☆☆☆☆, even though of course you know in your heart it’s ★★★★★.

You can type these symbols easily by searching ‘star’ in the character pop-up, and to make them even easier to type, you can enter a range of them with shortcuts in the Text tab of the Keyboard pane in System Preferences. Thus typing (on our example Mac, below) [[3 autocorrects to ★★★☆☆. Best of all, these shortcuts should sync over iCloud to your iPhone and iPad, so you can use them there too.

10. Ellipses

Well, if you’ve gotten this far, you probably do a bit, and we love you for it. The mistake in the above sentence, as you might have guessed, is that it ends with three full stops, not with an ellipsis. Wrong: … Right: …

To type an ellipsis, it’s ⌥; – but of course, you could out-typography-nerd anyone by airily claiming you manually kern three periods each time because you think the default ellipses in your chosen font are badly set.

Does any of this matter?

Now look, we know that by making any of these ‘mistakes’ you probably won’t impair the sense of what you’re saying, that good grammar and clarity should take precedence, and that even with the broad acceptance of Unicode there are often good reasons to ignore these old traditions.

And honestly, this was just meant to be a ‘oh, I didn’t know that!’ post rather than an infuriating blend of a telling-off and a diktat. But maybe, just maybe, now that you’re aware of some of these established conventions, you can help honour the rich and beautiful history of typography in the next chunk of text you set.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.