Understanding Typefaces, Part 4
In Part 3, we discussed the anatomy of letter forms. Now let’s take a look at typographical marks—what they are and when they’re used. We’ll skip the period (.) and the question mark (?) as they tend to be straight forward and not misused. But be forewarned, we’ll be touching on some grammar issues.

Follow the map
When you look at your computer keyboard, you see all the characters you typically found on a typewriter, plus a few more that are unique to computers. But what’s more important is what you don’t see. You don’t see punctuation marks like the ellipsis[A character consisting of three dots in a row denoting more copy should follow but doesn't.] or em dash[A dash the width of the character M for the font and point size in use.], for instance. So how do you type those you ask?

Some software packages have an option in their menus for inserting special characters and that can be used, but a better solution for those of you on a Windows computer is the accessory called Character Map. This handy little program lets you not only add just the right punctuation, but it also gives you access to, depending on the typeface, all sorts of accents. You can use the application to copy the necessary character to the Clipboard, then paste it into your work. Or you can learn the codes needed to type the characters directly. One word of caution though. While professionally designed typefaces should adhere to the conventions about where in the ‘map’ to put what glyph (letter forms or characters), there are lots of free fonts out there that may not conform. You may think you’ll get an ellipsis when you type that code, and find you get something else entirely or nothing at all. If that happens, you can use Character Map to scroll through all the glyphs in that face and see if the designer made the needed glyph, but put it somewhere else on the map.

Macs have something called Character Palette that performs a similar function. That’s a good thing for me as I’ll be switching to that platform sometime in 2009.

Quote this
There are foot and inch marks, and there are single and double quote marks… and they’re not the same thing! This image shows you the difference. On the typical computer keyboard, you’ll see a single key on the right that allows you to type a single mark, or the double mark if you also hold down the Shift key. Unless the software you’re using automatically converts those keystrokes to the proper “curly” typographer’s quotes (sometimes called “smart quotes”), what you’ll get is a foot mark, or with the Shift key, an inch mark. Now, here’s the other side of that problem—if the software does convert them to the typographer’s quotes, now it’s wrong when you meant to type a measurement. What a quandry!

If you’re creating an advertisement, flyer, etc., using the wrong mark screams amateur. Most modern software packages do have settings to automatically convert to typographer’s marks, but if yours doesn’t, all is not lost. The table below gives the codes for typing these directly. You need to simultaneously type all the keystrokes except the plus (+) sign as that’s for instructional purposes only.

typographer’s quote mark Mac Windows
opening single quote Option + ] Alt + 0145
closing single quote Option + Shift + ] Alt + 0146
opening double quote Option + [ Alt + 0147
closing double quote Option + Shift+ [ Alt + 0148

Before we leave the issue of quote marks, we must touch on the apostrophe, which uses the closing single quote mark. The apostrophe’s job is to indicate possessive case and mark omissions in contractions. While it has been used to create certain plurals as well, it should only be done to avoid confusion. For instance, if you wanted to refer to multiples of the lowercase a, you’d type a's because without the apostrophe, you’d have the word as. And that would be confusing. On the other hand, if you wanted to refer to all the years in a decade, say 1970, you’d type 1970s. The apostrophe isn’t needed.

Speaking of years, remember the proper mark for an apostrophe is the closing single quote mark. That means if you’re dropping off the first two digits of a year, you should type it like this: ’70, not ‘70. If your software automatically converts to typographical marks, make sure it correctly converts this mark. Some software assumes a single/double quote mark preceeded by a blank space, and followed by a character, requires the opening version of the mark.

Parenthetically speaking
Parentheses are used to set off parenthetical, supplemental, or illustrative information, or to surround characters used for enumeration. Looking on the standard QWERTY[The most commonly used modern-day keyboard layout on English-language computer and typewriter keyboards.] keyboard, you’ll find the opening parenthesis is above the 9, while the closing mark is above the 0. Here are some proper uses of the parentheses:

I use a liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor.

Typography is an interesting subject (at least to me),
but can be complicated to follow.

I could (1) handwrite a letter, or (2) type it
up with a nice calligraphic typeface.

Brackets are the squared-off marks you usually find to the right of the P on the standard QWERTY keyboard. These are used set off interpolations in quoted matter, editorial comments, or to replace parentheses when used within another pair of parentheses. Here are some examples:

In the police report, the witness [John Smith] stated…

His statement read, “She go [sic] to the store.”

CSS makes styling a website much easier. (See, for example, Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide [O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., 2000])

Braces are the “curly” brackets found in the upper position on the two bracket keys. These are more often used in mathematics and music, but with creative license, have been used in place of parentheses in typography. They’re also used to group numerous items, like this.

Angled brackets, also called lesser-than and greater-than symbols, besides their use in mathematics and computer programming languages, have been used by some in typography, particularly in foreign languages.

How dashing
In the dash family, there are actually three different marks: the hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—). Only the hyphen can be found directly on the QWERTY keyboard. The other two are accessible through the Character Map (or Mac’s Character Palette). The hyphen is what you use to form a compound word, like mother-in-law or twenty-one. Hyphens are also used to avoid confusion as in, I re-sent the message versus I resent the message. See how confusing that could be?

The en dash is called that because it’s approximately the same width as the lowercase n for that particular typeface. It’s used to denote a range, as in Monday–Friday or 9–5.

The em dash’s name also refers to its width (approximately the same as the lowercase m for that face). The em dash is what most people mean when they say “dash.” It’s used to indicate a sudden break in thought (as well as an abrupt change in tone or faltering speech), set off a parenthetical element, or after an inductory list or series. Here are some examples of its proper use:

I’ve been in this business a long time—
longer than I want to admit to, that’s for sure!

I love many typefaces—from classic serifs to
elegant scripts—but please don’t ask me for my favorites.

Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator—I use them all.

Time for a pause
There are several ways to indicate a pause in a sentence. It starts with the humble comma (,). Placed incorrectly, it can totally change the sentence. For instance:

When I called, John Thomas answered.
versus
When I called John, Thomas answered.

Besides indicating pauses, commas are also used before the conjuction linking two clauses:

I use Windows and Linux, but will soon use a Mac.
not
I use Windows and Linux but, will soon use a Mac.

On top of that, commas are used for a variety of things, including separating items in a group (red, orange, and yellow are all warm colors).

The semicolon (;) is used to connnect independent complete thoughts. To borrow from the example above:

I use Windows and Linux; I'll soon use a Mac.

For clarity’s sake, the semicolon can be used to separate elements that also include commas.

Then there’s the colon (:). Its job is to call attention to what follows, precede a list, separate a title from its subtitle, or with certain numbers. Here some examples:

I’ll never forget that day: September 11, 2001.

I use Adobe Creative Suite: Photoshop, InDesign,
Illustrator, Acrobat, and Bridge.

Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide

4:00 a.m.   or    2:1 ratio

Either the em dash (—) or the ellipsis (…) can be used to indicate a long or reflective pause. But the ellipsis is more often used to indicate an omission with a quote. If you can’t type the proper ellipsis character, you can type three periods.

Make a slash
The slash (/) also goes by several other names: virgule, diagonal, stroke, forward slash, oblique dash, slant, separatrix, scratch comma, or whack. It's typically used to separate words where either may be applicable, as in he/she or and /or. It’s sometimes used to abbreviate a word, as in w/o instead of without. In the same vein, it’s can be used to join words, as in w/tax instead of with tax. Another common usage is with writing dates, as in 01/01/01 in lieu of January 1, 2001.

The backslash (\) is the mirror image of the slash. It, too, goes by many names, including: slosh, backwhack, hack, escape (from C/UNIX), reverse slash, backslant, bash, reverse slant, reversed virgule, or backslat. This mark really has no use in typography. Its domain is the computer arena.

Miscellaneous marks
This still leaves numerous other typographical marks. Starting from the top left of your QWERTY keyboard, there’s the tilde (~), but considering it prints at a mid-point (versus high enough to be over a letter), it’s more like a swung dash[Used in dictionaries to indicate the omission of a word.]. In either case, it has minimal use in modern typography by itself—it’s more useful in mathematics and computers. When combined with certain letters, like ã, it’s a diacritical mark to indicate a change in pronounciation (common in certain foreign languages). Some people have used the tilde from the keyboard as a fancy dash, but this really isn’t correct usage.

Moving to the right on the keyboard, you find the exclamation point, or bang. Typically used at the end of a sentence, it’s main purpose is to denote high emotion, high volume (as in a loud noise or yelling), a command, or to indicate something astonishing. It can also be used inside a sentence, as in: There was a loud bang! as the door slammed. In casual writing, it’s not unusual to see someone use multiple bangs to make their point, but this wouldn’t be acceptable in formal use.

We’ll skip the at (@) sign and go to the next symbol. It goes by a few names: hash, pound, or number symbol (#). When used in front of a number, it’s a number sign. When it falls after a number, it’s a pound sign (as in weight, not currency). So use your #2 pencil is read aloud as "use your number two pencil" while print on 80# text paper is read aloud as "print on eighty-pound text paper." It has a few other uses, but from a typography point of view, the only other ones you might see are (1) as a proofreader’s mark to indicate a space is needed, and (2) a series of three hash marks to indicate the end of a press release.

Now let’s take a bigger leap, to that ‘upside down’ V character. Its proper name is caret. This is another proofreader’s mark and is used to indicate where something needs to be inserted. When a smaller version is placed over a letter, it’s a circumflex accent, as you see in â.

Next you find the lovely ampersand (&), called the "and symbol" by those who don’t know its proper name. The ampersand comes in many forms, and they start to make sense when you understand the glyph began as a ligature[The combination of two or three characters by a stroke or tie.] for the letters et, Latin for and. The word ampersand itself is a corruption of the phrase “and per se and.”

The ampersand can be traced to the first century A.D. where the letters E and T occasionally were written together. Over the years, while the popularity of other ligatures rose and waned, the ampersand remained well used. In fact, it was so common, it was regarded as the 27th letter of the English alphabet. Children in America were taught an alphabet that ended, not with Z, but with & (as seen in the 1863 children’s book The Dixie Primer for the Little Folks).

Typically the ampersand is used in formal names of businesses (like law firms, and even our own company name) and is often used in the titles of movies and books. It’s also used when addressing an envelope to a couple, as in Mr. & Mrs. John Smith. When it comes to the majority of typography—the text of an article, for instance—it’s not acceptable. The and should be spelled out. It is, however, often used in handwritten notes.

Next to the ampersand is the oft-used asterisk, also called a star or splat. It comes from the feudal time period when a symbol was needed to indicate a date of birth. The original shape had six teardrop shaped arms coming out from a common center.

In modern usage, asterisks are mostly used to denote a footnote, as a bullet on a list, or when three are used in succession in a work of fiction, as a jump in scene or thought. They’re also sometimes used to replace certain letters to avoid offending anyone (f**k). And if a proper star dingbat isn’t available, asterisks have been used to represent ratings of movies, restaurants, etc.

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