Punc Rocks: The Typographer’s Guide to Punctuation

After the first installment of this series about type and typography, a reader asked me to write about punctuation: how to use it, space it, and position it. An excellent idea, I think, because it raises the important issue of how type and grammatical usage intersect. Type is a lackey to language. The subject is also a logical follow-up to my second installment, which addressed the question of doubling the word space after a period.

In typeset text, the sequence and positioning of characters result from a combination of typographic tradition — largely based on what works for the eyes — and copy-editing style, where meaning is king. Both are moving targets. For example, what’s wrong with the setting of this sentence ? That space before the question mark may look weird to you, but it’s not if you’re typesetting in French, where it’s the norm.

Even in English, there are many differences between how Americans and British use punctuation. Take, for example, the use of quotation marks. The Brits set off a quote with single quotation marks and reserve double quotation marks for quotes within quotes, as in:

Americans would set that the other way around, with double quotes for the main quotation and single quotes for the quote embedded within it.

Then there’s the question of how that sentence-ending period is positioned. American typographic style is to always set the period within the quotation marks, be they single or double. The British have a different approach, which I have to say makes more linguistic sense, even if it’s not as pretty, typographically speaking. In British practice, the period goes inside the quotation marks only if that period is part of the matter being quoted. If the period is not part of the quote, it sets outside of the quotation marks, like so:

There’s a clear logic to this, because especially in academic prose, it could matter whether or not that period is part of the quote, as it could affect the quote’s meaning.

Nevertheless, the distinction is not made in American copy-editing or typesetting, and periods, commas, and semicolons always go before closing quotation marks regardless of context, like so:

The spacing simply looks nicer that way. And if the meaning may be distorted, you can always blame the author or the copy editor.

Question marks and exclamation points, though, do not follow this pattern. They should be set inside the quotation marks only if they’re part of the text being quoted, hence:

Speaking of copy-editing style, it’s the norm for periods, commas, colons, and semicolons to be set in italic if the word preceding them is so set. This isn’t universally practiced, but most copy-editing style manuals (for example, The Chicago Manual of Style) prescribe it.

If you find yourself setting type in the British manner, feel free to kern those periods that fall outside quotation marks so they snuggle up more closely to the quotes. Otherwise, the loose spacing of the period added to the word space that follows it creates an ungainly gap in the text. (Which brings us back to the topic of the previous column.)

Interestingly (to the likes of me, anyway), the kerning tables of American-made fonts tend to have an American bias in this regard, as they typically include adjustments for character pairs including . ” and , ” but not ”. or ”,. English fonts, or American fonts created by English designers, tend to include the complete set.

One last note about quotation marks: Although they’re sometimes used as a form of emphasis, this is generally better accomplished using italics. Exceptions include ironic expressions (e.g., a renowned “genius”) or common words used in new or uncommon contexts (as in, the “dimples” on a golf ball). When you’re citing a word as a word, italicize it (“most uses of the word usage are improper”).

Dashing To and Fro
The spacing of dashes is also a popular source of confusion, as is how they should be used in the first place.

Pity the poor em dash. Many people think it’s too wide. Many don’t like its tight spacing. Many don’t like either. The em dash has a specific grammatical use — to separate thoughts, much as parentheses do — but there’s a creeping popular insurrection afoot against its use.

Em dashes should be used closed up; that is, without any space before or after. For those who dislike the tight spacing of em dashes, feel free to kern open small spaces on each side. There are a few rare typefaces (such as Carter & Cone’s version of Matthew Carter’s ITC Galliard) that contain what’s called a punctuating em dash, which is somewhat narrower and has wider side bearings, creating a similar effect, as shown below.

The upper of these two samples is set in Bitstream’s version of ITC Galliard, whose em dash is of the so-called joining variety, which is the common standard. The lower sample is set using Carter & Cone’s version of the same face, which substitutes shorter, punctuating em dashes.

An em dash, by the way, can appear at the beginning or the end of a typeset line, an ambidextrousness lacking in an opening or closing parenthesis.

More and more often, en dashes — which are half the width of em dashes — are being used in place of their wider siblings. But en dashes are too narrow to play the dividing role well, so they’re generally preceded and followed by additional spacing to increase their impact. Popular as this is becoming, it’s wrong. I may be standing in the way of stylistic progress here, but I will stick with tradition for two reasons. First, the grammatical role of en dashes is to connect, not to separate. Use them for ranges of numbers — for example, pages 17–22, the years 1941–44 — or in open compounds: pre–Civil War. That’s the copy-editor’s argument.

But the typographer’s reason not to use ens in the role of ems is that they’re too small. Adding spaces doesn’t make them any bigger, it just fluffs them out. They’re still too wimpy. En dashes should be set closed up.

As with the en dash, the role of the hyphen, the baby of the dash family, is to connect, and it, too, is set closed up. The exception is where prefixes are used alone as part of a parallel construction, such as “pre- and postmodern.” You should never start a line with a hyphen, unless you’re using it as a bullet to introduce an item in a list, in which case it should also be followed by a word space:

Using two consecutive hyphens in place of an em dash is a typewriter convention, and you should avoid it at all times. Except maybe when setting Web pages, where trying to force an em dash to appear in an HTML page can cause some systems to erroneously display the HTML code for an em dash instead. For this reason, double hyphens have become an unfortunate Web convention as a stand-in for em dashes. [Editor’s note: Sorry, Jim!]

Clip and Save
While we’re on the subject, here’s a summary of how other common characters should be spaced, at least when following American typesetting conventions. Note that in weird computery constructions such as e-mail addresses and URLs, all bets are off.

Characters Followed by a Word Space:

(a bullet, or any other symbol used to designate an item in a list)

Characters Preceded and Followed by a Word Space:
(except when used in initialisms, such as A&P)

When used in formulas:

Characters Not Followed by a Space:

(when used to indicate positive or negative values, such as +15°)

Characters Not Preceded by a Space:

Style and Type
There are any number of copy-editing and style manuals out there, and picking one to use base your “house style” on is a good idea. Having such an authority on hand solves a lot of arguments. Although many publishers offer their style guides for sale (the New York Times and the Associated Press come to mind) my favorites are the following:

The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, The University of Chicago Press, 2003

Words into Type, 3rd edition, Prentice Hall, 1974 (technologically out of date, but stylistically still right on)


Posted on: September 9, 2009

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

23 Comments on Punc Rocks: The Typographer’s Guide to Punctuation

  1. So nice to know that there are others out there that care about typography and correct punctuation as much as I do. My boss just walked by wondering what I was “wasting my time” on, questioning why the people reading our literature (industrial products) would even care if the punctuation was correct. Needless to say, I am not in the “perfect” design environment–though is there one, really? Thank you SO much for the great & informative article!

  2. Fun info for people doing their own amateur production. Letters to family, blogs, party invitations, etc. I hope and pray this information isn’t meant for professional designers, each and every one of whom should––through their training––be well aware of the fact that no reputable publishing house allows designers to manipulate TEXT in any way, shape, or form (please note the difference between text and type). Quotation placement and em dashes and the like are strictly the domain of editors and proofreaders, NOT designers! Learning is great, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Leave the spaces, em dashes, and quotation placements to the editorial staff, please.

  3. I love these columns, type nerd that I am. Though 90% of the people I work with don’t know and don’t care, unless they want to force me to put double spaces after periods, which still happens occasionally. I confess I’m an en-dash person, with a thin space before and after — the em-dash looks too horsey for me (except for the custom version in this column, which looks wonderful).
    So here’s my question: how does spacing work with am and pm? Is is 8am, or 8 am?

  4. As a designer, you shouldn’t be addressing the one- or two-space issue (which is not an issue in any standard, to any actual editor worth their weight in kerning. It is only an issue to people who simply don’t know any better, which is why there are these odd entities called editors).

    If you’ve been left out in the cold and are forced to try your hand at editing, God help you. Pick up the industry standards (Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition; Merriam-Webster Dictionary 11th Edition; AP Manual; NYT; APA; MLA––whatever style your agency has adopted, if any at all) and study them for about 5 years.

    Or, tell your boss you’re not an editor and perhaps they might want to consider hiring one. A real one. Not someone who edits online “books” and such.

    No wonder the language is going down the toilet.

    Typography and content (text) are not the same thing. Rinse and repeat.

  5. I was surprised to see your apparent endorsement of the use of hyphens as bullets in a list. I had thought this was solely a Microsoft innovation. I have been opposed to using hyphens as bullets because, primarily, that’s not what a hyphen is supposed to do. As you point out, it is supposed to connect things. Also, if a bullet is supposed to stand out, as a clear demarcation of the item that follows it, hyphens don’t work very well for that purpose–they tend to disappear visually. I’d be interested in learning your thoughts on this. Thanks!

  6. Re: comment above. Leaving the spaces, em dashes, and quotation placements to the editorial staff, might be the case at venerable institutions like the New York Times but @Leah Hanlin’s experience is probably more realistic. My own is that editors do not come out of degree courses with typographically honed editing skills anymore than designers do. For most the communications industry James Felici article is a timely and necessary reminder of the finer points of setting type. His Complete Manual of Typography is one of my most thumbed books. I do like a thin space on each end of my em dash.

  7. Useful article. Thanks again!

  8. Here’s a question I can’t find in my style book. I know the period goes inside a quote mark, but what about an apostrophe? Say the last word is stylin’.

  9. I’m so pleased that this is turning out to be such a lively forum. I can’t wait to see what happens when we touch on some really controversial topics.
    Regarding the divide between editorial and design (or between text and type, as one reader put it), my first comment is that publishing is a collaboration among many people with many fields of expertise. These often overlap. Consider the responsibilities of writer and editor, for example. Or editor and copy editor. Copy editor and typesetter. Typesetter and designer. Desktop publishing tools and commercial pressures have telescoped many of these responsibilities and blurred the traditional lines between tasks. A show of hands, please: How many typesetters and designers out there are asked to deal with manuscripts that have not been professionally edited? Manuscripts in which spacing, punctuation placement, and character use (hyphens, dashes, points of ellipsis), for example, are inconsistent or simply unconsidered. Having worked in publishing production and editorial for 40 years, I don’t think I’m the only one with my hand in the air. The fact is that typesetters and designers cannot, alas, count on having competent editorial help upstream. Typesetters are the style guardians of last resort, and to quarantine them in a design milieu and say that they shouldn’t be able to question character sequence, multiple hyphens, or multiple word spaces isn’t helpful. Nor is drawing a hard line between text and type–the reader sees both at the same time. We’re all in this together.
    Now, to the fine points.
    As for the relative positioning of an apostrophe and a period or comma in a contraction such as stylin’, (whoops, I already gave it away) the answer is that the apostrophe should be joined to the contraction. The punctuation should follow. Thus, the correct setting would look like this: groovy stylin’, or way cool stylin’. In other words, apostrophes aren’t handled like quotation marks when it comes to adjacent punctuation marks.
    On another subject, I agree that hyphens don’t make the best bullets, but in this role, any characters are fair game: asterisks, plus signs, whatever. But I’ve seen enough PowerPoint shows to know that hyphens are used as bullets all the time, if only because the bullet character is harder to find. The point I was making is only that there is a time when hyphens can be followed by a space, even if the whole thing isn’t necessarily very pretty.
    And then there’s the question of am and pm. Or is that a.m. and p.m.? Actually, the preferred style is small caps (which I can’t reproduce here), with periods and no spaces, like so (use your imagination on the size): A.M. and P.M. Lowercase versions are also commonly used, but the punctuation and closed-up spacing is the same: a.m. and p.m.
    And once again, thanks for all your comments, kind words (especially) and criticisms alike.

  10. As a British designer, I’d like to point out that it is not the British way to set off a quote with single quotation marks and reserve double quotation marks for quotes within quotes.

    That’s not been the case on any magazine I’ve worked on in 12 years in the industry, and I even checked the Economist style guide, which I reckon is about as British as anything, and that says double quotation marks for quotes, and single for quotes within quotes.

  11. The author said: And then there’s the question of am and pm. Or is that a.m. and p.m.? Actually, the preferred style is small caps (which I can’t reproduce here), with periods and no spaces, like so (use your imagination on the size): A.M. and P.M.

    Where did you get this information that small caps are preferred? By whom? Actually, it depends on your style guide. The associated press style book says a.m. and p.m., lowercase (not small caps) and no spaces, but periods. Just sayin. 🙂

  12. You say your “favorites” are the following, but only list one entry. Was the post cut off?

  13. My bad. Sorry once again, Jim!

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  14. As noted at the end of the column, my preferred sources for copy-editing and typographioc style are The Chicago Manual of Style and Words Into Type. Both prefer small caps for these abbreviations, although both recognize lowercase settings as acceptable alternatives.

  15. For we Brits who teminate our sentences with full stops, not periods; and who like to place full stops outside closing quotation marks; here are a couple of home-grown alternatives to The Chicago Manual of Style:

    1. The Guardian newspaper publishes both printed and online versions of Guardian Style.
    2. The Economist publishes its Style Guide in print and in an abbreviated online form. This guide has a section on differences between British and American English.

    I agree with the comment above on the British use of single and double quotation marks. Everyday use, including that in newspapers and magazines, corresponds with American style. In books, however, the historical preference for single quotes is still common.

    Keith Bell, a Scottish web designer.

  16. once again, for an informative article, and for not dumbing it down, or hamming it up.
    I appreciate your regard for language and meaning.

  17. Although it’s not a major typographic issue, I hate to let loose ends go, so I thought I’d add one more word about the British style (my term) of using quotation marks. The use of single quotation marks for principal quotes and double quotes for quotes-within-quotes is indeed used more in British books than in magazines or newspapers. My principal style guide for British usage is Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, and it supports this style. It’s also used by such literary stalwarts at the London Review of Books and many popular outlets, such as the BBC. The Times of London, meanwhile, uses what I will now stop calling the U.S. style, which relies on double quotes for main citations and single quotes for quotations within them. In short, it’s a mistake to associate these styles of using quotation marks with any nationality, although I will miss the shorthand labels.

  18. I find it eye-opening (thank you to the editor writing in) that I have insensitive to my “industry friends”: the editors. (I always get irritated when the Marketing folks try to tell me how to design a particular project!)
    Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of having a professional editor, copywriter, or anything of the sort. Our brochures go from Marketing Product Specialist straight to the designer (me.) I often edit text, grammar, and punctuation. I am grammar, logo, and branding police all rolled into one. I just do the best I can with the limited resources I have. (Surprising, considering we are a huge multi-national company.) Therefore, I GREATLY appreciate Jim’s articles heightening the awareness of typography issues!

  19. However, I have found that it REALLY depends on the typeface.

  20. I am so glad to see this article’s information at this time. It seems we are at a key point in time where we seem to becoming a bit more sloppy in our punctuation. This great article is a true keeper as reference to all of us who want to be more correct in punctuation usage and, therefore, able to be more understood. I, also, would love to see us Americans move toward the British use of the quotes, but that may be just a bit too far.

    Thanks for the hard work.


  21. “glad to see this article’s information at this time. It seems we are at a key point in time where we seem to becoming a bit more sloppy in our punctuation”–agree with this comment cow boy

  22. What is the reasoning behind not having a word space following ™ when ® has a space? One is just a symbol for a registered trademark and the other for a non-registered mark.

  23. So very helpful! Thanks mucho

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