The Sweet Sound of Punctuation


Excerpted from InDesign Magazine, April/May 2011 (issue 41). Subscribe now!
In addition to the HTML version of the excerpt below, you can also download the excerpt as a PDF that retains the full design of the magazine. This PDF is best viewed in Adobe Acrobat or the free Adobe Reader.

Fonts are much more than merely letters and numbers. Scroll down the glyph menu, and you’ll discover an eclectic assortment of signs and symbols, punctuation, and more— familiar, some rather obscure. When playing music the symbols above and between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. Similarly, in typesetting punctuation helps make sense of the words around them. They command the rhythm of the text; tell the reader when to pause, and for how long. They have the power to make the words ask, or shout, or hesitate; they determine what the characters before or after them exactly mean; they alter how letters or words sound. Time to get (re)acquainted with this symphony of glyphs, from the common to the unusual.
Quotation Marks

Because it must be one of the most frequently recurring topics in articles on typography, it’s only fair to start with quotation marks. A telltale sign of unprofessional “desktop typography” is the use of straight quotes. These straight variants stem from the days of typewriters, whose keyboard didn’t provide sufficient room for separate opening and closing quotation marks.
As their name implies, quotation marks enclose a quotation or direct speech, but also a literal title or a name. Another common use of quotation marks is to indicate ironic or apologetic words, and to signal unusual usage of specific words. You can use single and double quotes; the latter are preferred in the United States. Most importantly, you should always match opening and closing quotation marks. When quoting within a quotation, alternate single and double quotation marks.

Although you can enter quotation marks with dedicated key combinations, these days most applications— text editors and desktop publishing software— convert straight or “dumb” quotes into curly or “smart” quotes during text entry.

In InDesign, this control is called Use Typographer’s Quotes and lives in the Type pane of the Preferences dialog box. You can enable or disable this preference at any time by pressing Command-Option-Shift-quote (or Ctrl-Alt-Shift-quote in Windows).

However, this automatic conversion can produce unwanted results. If a space precedes the quotation mark, it converts to the opening variant. Conversely, if a character precedes the quotation mark, it converts to the closing variant. The shape of the apostrophe— it has a different purpose— be identical to the closing single quotation mark. The presence of a space before abbreviated years like ’11 for 2011 incorrectly produces an opening single quotation mark, and is a very common typographical mistake. To produce the correct apostrophe in this situation, press Option/Alt-Shift-].
The function of the apostrophe is the omission of one or more letters; for example, in contractions like “don’t” and “isn’t”, or the marking of possessive case, as in Charlie’s Angels. (I think I just betrayed my age here.) Sometimes you can see a single prime or an acute accent used inappropriately for an apostrophe, especially in e-mails or online.

Quotation marks are language-specific. They have a variety of forms in different languages and in different media. The other primary shapes are the guillemets, which are used in Latin languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, among others. Because their shape reminds us of arrows, these days many a web designer use them for this purpose. However this type of use is improper, and looks plain wrong to Spanish and other nationalities that use guillemets for quotation.
Note that InDesign automatically replaces regular quotation marks with guillemets when your text is set to one of these languages in the Control panel or Character panel. It won’t change quotes already there, but it will convert them as you type or copy/paste.

Very few people realize the prime symbols are different from the straight quotes, and should not be confused with the apostrophe, quotation marks, or the acute accent or grave accent. Primes designate several different units— feet, arcminutes, minutes, seconds— are also used for various other purposes in mathematics, the sciences, and linguistics. Because prime symbols are in only a minority of the fonts, it’s acceptable to use straight quotes instead.

The degree symbol serves, among other things, to represent degrees of arc (e.g., in geometry and geographic coordinate systems) or degrees of temperature.
In some languages the degree sign also indicates the date of birth; for example, Yves Peters (°1969). (See also the dagger.) However, don’t confuse the degree symbol with the ordinal (see below), which also looks like a raised circle. The difference is subtle yet important— degree symbol is almost always a perfectly round circle, whereas the ordinal is constructed like a lowercase “o”. To type a degree character, press Option/Alt-8.
Ordinal Indicator

Ordinal numbers indicate order, such as 1st and 2nd. In some languages, ordinals are indicated with a single character: o or a. Although few typefaces have a full complement of lowercase characters in superscript, almost all fonts include the ordinal o and a in their character set. In Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, they are appended to the numeral depending on whether the number’s grammatical gender is masculine or feminine, respectively. They are sometimes underlined as well.
Numero Sign

Besides the ordinal o and a, some typefaces also offer the numero symbol— combination of the capital N with the masculine ordinal o, often underlined. This typographic abbreviation of the word “number” indicates ordinal numeration, especially in addresses, names, and titles. If the font you’re using doesn’t have this glyph, in English it’s acceptable to substitute it with the abbreviation “No.” including the full stop at the end.
Number Sign/Pound/Hash

In U.S. English the number sign # is frequently used instead of the numero sign. Usually called the pound sign in the United States, the symbol is called the hash in most English-speaking countries outside North America. To differentiate it from the sharp in musical notation, the two horizontal lines in the number sign must be truly horizontal, whereas they’re slanted to the upper right in the sharp sign.
Recently, the hash has acquired an entirely new function thanks to the social networking and microblogging service Twitter. By adding a word or group of words with no spacing preceded by a hash to a post, users can group posts together by topic or type; for instance, #InDesign. These are called hashtags.

Despite the aggressive connotations its name may suggest, the typographic bullet is completely harmless. All it does is indicate items in a list. The name most likely originated from its original shape that resembles an actual bullet. Bullets often appear in the dreaded MS PowerPoint presentations as bulleted items, also called “bullet points”. Text editors and desktop publishing applications offer them in a wide variety of shapes and colors. As the original round bullet looks quite large and unwieldy in most fonts, designers often substitute another symbol, such as a hyphen, an asterisk, or an interpunct.

Not many people realize this, but the use of spaces to separate words only originated somewhere between 600 and 800 A.D. In ancient Greek all the letters in a text simply ran into each other, and it was up to the reader to distinguish the individual words. Interpuncts, the first punctuation marks, were regularly used in Latin to separate words. They can still be seen in architectural lettering and inscriptions, where they sometimes assume the shape of a small triangle.
Most dictionaries use the interpunct to indicate the syllables in words. Because its size and weight perfectly harmonizes with the stem weight of the typeface and its punctuation, the interpunct is sometimes used by typographers as a general divider; for example, in dates, subheads, or logos, and to indicate list items.
Vertical Bar, Pipe

Another symbol that can be used as an alternative divider mark in general typography is the vertical bar. The character has various applications in mathematics and programming.

Fans of classic Belgian comics are more likely to mispronounce this “Asterix.” The Greek/late Latin roots of its name are derived from its appearance: the asterisk resembles the conventional representation of a star. Its design often differs in sans serif and serif typefaces— five-pointed in sans serif designs, and six-pointed in serif designs— this is no rule. The symbol originated in feudal times, when printers of family trees used it to indicate the date of birth. It was also used in liturgical music to denote a deliberate pause.

The contemporary applications for the asterisk are manifold. It often calls out a footnote, especially when only one or two are on the page. Asterisks can also replace letters— avoid offending by obfuscating swear words like f**k or avoid profanation of a holy name like G*d; or to preserve anonymity, as in John S***. They can be an alternative to typographical bullets to indicate items in an unordered list. In textual media, enclosing a word with asterisks *emphasizes* it. This is useful when bold style is not available.
Dagger, Double Dagger

Those same fans of Asterix & Obelix will be delighted to find out that another name for the dagger is “obelisk”. Like the asterisk it was originally applied for musical notations in liturgical books of the Roman Catholic Church. Fittingly, it now serves a function similar to the asterisk, namely to indicate a second footnote when the asterisk has already been used. A third footnote employs the double dagger. When dealing with larger numbers of footnotes, simply use superscript numerals.
Because its shape is reminiscent of a Christian cross, in predominantly Christian regions the mark may also appear before or after the name of a deceased person, or the date of death. Therefore, it’s not used as a footnote mark next to the name of a living person.
Pilcrow, Section Sign

The unusual English name for the paragraph sign, “pilcrow”, may have its roots in the French “pelagraphe”, a corruption of the English “paragraph”. Its shape evolved from the capital C with double slash—”C” for capitulum, “chapter” in Latin. The pilcrow denotes paragraphs in legal and academic writing. In desktop publishing software, it marks the presence of an invisible carriage return at the end of a paragraph. This last application has caused the pilcrow to be adopted as the universal icon in desktop publishing for hidden characters, such as spaces, tab characters, end of line and page breaks, and so on.
Related to the pilcrow, the section sign mainly refers to a particular section, such as legal code. The double S shape originated from the Latin “signum sectionis”. Both pilcrow and section sign can also call out footnotes, after the asterisk, dagger, and double dagger. However, this usage is declining in favor of numbered footnotes.
Ampersands, at signs, copyright and trademark symbols, the interrobang, and more are on page 2 of this article. Go to page 2 now.

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James graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee in 2003. After a short stint designing catalogs he started working as a freelance designer for C2 Graphics Productivity Solutions. Soon he was promoted to a full time instructor/designer and subsequently become an Adobe Certified Instructor Design Master. Currently James is the Director of Content, Creative at where he is also an author.
  • Anonymous says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Yves Peters Sweet Sound of Punctuation.
    It reminded me of Danish Comedian Victor Borge’s delightful take on the same subject.

  • Anonymous says:

    Just want to point out that there are national standards for among other things quotation marks, and that affects the way smart quotes look. In this article the english standards are displayed.
    Smart quotes adapt to the language that is used swedish quotes are ”” and if I remember right german „“ or french «».

  • Leah Hanlin says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. Thank you for helping us all become better designers by knowing a little bit of the history with each mark. I truly hope we get a “part 2” article!

  • Anonymous says:

    Great article. Odd, though, to find a punctuation error in an article about punctuation. I found at least two instances where a period was placed outside an ending quotation mark. That’s a no-no, at least in the USA. Is it acceptable in other English-speaking countries?

  • Anonymous says:

    I wish more examples were used and more keyboard shortcuts were mentioned. Going to the glyph pallet is not convenient in everyday projects.

  • Christian Hernández says:

    A follow-up would be awesome. I like your style.

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