Dashes and Typographer’s Quotes

There are basically three dashes  (four if you want to get really picky, 4) that are in common use in the written version of the English language. They each serve very specific purposes and should not be used interchangeably. Like all forms of punctuation, they clarify further the authors intent by their correct use. By comparison, when they are not used correctly they work counter to the meaning of the words that accompany them. Today the incorrect usage of dashes is particularly widespread primarily as a result of the ease of desktop publishing. The fault usually lies in the fact that with the exception of the hyphen, the other dashes are classified as a “special character” and do not appear on any of the keys of a computer keyboard. Therefore, to create one the writer or designer must know not only the distinction between all three but also how to create each one.

Here they are in all their glory

Hyphen –
Should be used only to hyphenate words (made directly from keyboard hyphen key). They are not to be used as a replacement for Bullets (dots). Nor should we ever use two of them in place of an EM Dash. (see below)

EN dash –
Should only be used between phrases that indicate durations of time such as 1:00 – 2:00, Monday – Friday, 1919–2019, etc. If you find yourself saying the word “to” where the dash occurs then you know the correct written version should be an EN dash.

MAC

  • Make it by pressing both option and hyphen keys simultaneously. 

PC

  • If you have a numpad, turn numlock on and use Alt + 0150 for en-dash. That is keep Alt pressed and type the numbers on the numeric keypad. this works with only left Alt.
  • There is an AutoHotKey program that lets you type Em and En dashes somewhat naturally.  It’s on Github if anyone’s interested. It’s called Em-n-en. The entire point of this program is to allow a user to quickly insert an em/en dash by typing ==- (Em dash) or --= (En dash). There are other methods for inserting the dashes – these are covered in the program itself. Note that this only works on windows.

EM dash—
Basically, any other instance requiring a dash that is not a hyphenated word nor separating durations of time should be indicated with an EM dash. Common examples include the dash proceeding an author’s or poet’s name in lieu of the word “by” or in a compound sentence where there are multiple clauses. Those clauses might alternatively be separated by parentheses or commas. The choice of which is usually determined by where you want to place emphasis. The clause enclosed by commas typically has the same emphasis as the other point within that sentence. Separation by use of parenthesis gives a bit more. Separation by EM dash gives the most emphasis to that part of the sentence. So, the sentence below could be correctly punctuated in either of three ways.

  1. And yet, when the car was finally delivered, nearly three months after it was ordered, she decided she no longer wanted it, leaving the dealer with an oddly equipped car that would be difficult to sell.
  2. And yet, when the car was finally delivered (nearly three months after it was ordered) she decided she no longer wanted it, leaving the dealer with an oddly equipped car that would be difficult to sell.
  3. And yet, when the car was finally delivered—nearly three months after it was ordered—she decided she no longer wanted it, leaving the dealer with an oddly equipped car that would be difficult to sell.

MAC


  • Make one by pressing the shift + option + hyphen keys simultaneously.

PC

  • Alt + 0151 for em-dash. That is keep Alt pressed and type the numbers on the numeric keypad. this works with only left Alt.
  • There is an AutoHotKey program that lets you type Em and En dashes somewhat naturally.  It’s on Github if anyone’s interested. It’s called Em-n-en. The entire point of this program is to allow a user to quickly insert an em/en dash by typing ==- (Em dash) or --= (En dash). There are other methods for inserting the dashes – these are covered in the program itself. Note that this only works on windows.

Spacing

For all of the very technical precision and subtle clarity that correct use of these marks impart to the written word, spacing of them, by comparison is rather arbitrary. No two designers necessarily space these the same. There is no hard and fast rule to aid you. What you must do instead is apply the same thinking that you do when kerning. Your goal is optical evenness. Avoid the creation of awkward “hot spots” because of the particular letter that immediately proceeds and follows the dash. You must adjust this space, before and after the dash, so that they appear equal in length. Whatever that result is you must try to maintain it throughout the rest of the document on every additional use of that form of dash. If it is a “close” spacing on one it must remain that same closeness on all the other ones. The same is true if you determined the spacing to be a bit wider. Then it must remain that version for the rest.


  • The Apostrophe and Quote Marks

curly smart quotes

The curly, or smart quote is an elusive character. There are some functional differences between straight and curly quotation marks.

Straight marks

typewriter

Straight marks were invented for use on typewriters. Due to physical and mechanical constraints, you can only fit so many keys on a typewriter’s keyboard. Using straight quotes instead of curly quotes freed up two slots for other characters on the keyboard, which is why these characters were preferable.

When computers came into the fray, they put these straight marks to good use. Most programming languages require the use of straight marks to indicate string literals (e.g. “Hello world”), so they are still very useful today.

Usage

On any typical keyboard, simply press ' for a straight single mark, ditto or foot mark ( ‘ ) and Shift + ' for a straight double mark or inch mark (“).

Curly quotes

Unlike straight marks, curly quotes ( “, ”) are usually more legible in paragraphs and long texts, and match the other characters better. They are more suitable for reading, and should be used when writing documents, articles, blog posts, etc.

Usage

It turns out that producing curly quotes on a computer is super easy. I’ve committed these simple shortcuts to memory.

Mac OSX

  • Alt + ] produces an opening single curly quote ( )
  • Alt + Shift + ] produces a closing single curly quote ( )
  • Alt + [ produces an opening double curly quote ( )
  • Alt + Shift + [ produces a closing double curly quote ( )

Windows

  • Alt + 0145 produces an opening single curly quote ( )
  • Alt + 0146 produces a closing single curly quote ( )
  • Alt + 0147 produces an opening double curly quote ( )
  • Alt + 0148 produces a closing double curly quote ( )

Converting straight marks to curly quotes

Some word processors like Microsoft Word will automatically convert straight marks to curly quotes for you on the fly, as you type. However, if you copy and paste text that includes straight marks into a word processor, it may not always convert the straight marks properly.

To manually convert straight marks to curly quotes within your word processor, simply use the search and replace function to find all instances of the straight single quote ( ‘ ) and replace it with the same character — a straight single quote ( ‘ ). You can do the same for straight double marks ( “ ) too.

I’m not sure why, but it works.

Who cares?

I like to believe that the devil is in the details. These small details in your writing will go consciously unnoticed by most, no doubt. Snobby typographers, bookworms, and other designers and developers will be among the few who may actually notice, and maybe that significant other you dated back in 2016 who majored in creative writing. However, attention to such details affects the meaning of the written word either consciously or subconsciously for all readers.