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The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.

― Chuck Bill Swindoll

As software developers, we spend most of our time writing code. Fully functional and bugless software is our primary objective. Nice and pretty user interface is the responsibility of a graphic designer or a framework, such as Bootstrap or Polymer. We only provide the content, and here it is—arranged according to the latest layout trends, enriched with elegant images, glamorously shining with colour. If the content is bad, however, not even the greatest framework can make it look good.

Written text is our greatest enemy. Many of us suffer from dyslexia, which causes serious damage in our school essays, cover letters, and even emails. But since we have some spell-checking tools (and colleagues who review our work), we can easily fix our errors. However, no tool and hardly any reviewer can help us with our greatest obstacle.

Typography is not about spelling or grammar—it is about the beauty and legibility of written text. A graphic designer provides us with fonts, but usually, it is our responsibility to use proper characters. And no school prepares us for it.

History

We are not makers of history. We are made by history.

― Martin Luther King, Jr.

Once upon a time, the most common form of text was handwriting. However, some people wanted to obtain text quality similar to the printing press at home. It became possible with the invention of the typewriter, which—due to size limitations—provided at most several dozens of characters.

When the era of personal computers began, the first word processing software came along. But hardware resources were extremely limited back then. In 1963, the American Standards Association created a character-encoding standard called ASCII, with only 95 printable characters and 33 control characters (a total of 128 characters) that could be represented by 7 bits. A standard PC keyboard (highly based on a typewriter keyboard) also uses the same narrow set of numbers, letters and—most of all—punctuation symbols. Because of those limitations, we have learnt to misuse some characters, whenever the required symbol is unavailable. ‘If two or more characters look similar, we should use one to represent them all’—apparently, this was the main idea behind the ASCII standard. Fortunately, since UTF‑8 is now the most popular standard on the Internet, we are not restricted to 7 bits anymore.

Honestly, we do not read as many books as our parents and grandparents did. Web pages, on the other hand, are usually created by people who do not know much about typesetting. And since there is virtually no distinction between similar punctuation marks in hand-written text, we simply do not recognise the differences anymore.

We are not makers of history. We are made by history.

Once upon a time, the most common form of text was handwriting. However, some people wanted to obtain text quality similar to the printing press at home.

Dashes

I was built for the long run, not for the short dash, I guess.

― William Shatner

There are no dashes on a computer keyboard. There is no minus either. The only character we may type is a hyphen. Many text editors provide an automatic conversion of space-hyphen-space into space-dash-space—which is more or less correct—but that is not good enough.

Hyphen

A hyphen (-) is usually used to group words into compound modifiers, like in over-the-counter drugs, mass-produced computer, one-way ticket, or well-read person. It might also be used to indicate a prefix or a suffix, such as pre-, post-, -ing, -ish. Another use case for hyphens would be hyphenation in a justified text. The latter, however, is not practised in software user interface—it is mostly used in printed text.

En dash, em dash

When it comes to ranges of values, an en dash (–) should be used, which is slightly longer and thinner than a hyphen. In most cases, no space should be placed before or after the en dash, e.g. our Android application has been downloaded 100–200 times. But there is an exception to this rule—if both start and end of the range of dates consist of more than one word. So one should write: September–November 2010, June 21–23, but April 17 – May 9.

An em dash (—), on the other hand, is mostly used to indicate a fragment of text, specifying the main subject. Its meaning is often compared to parentheses, but there is a subtle semantic difference. Parentheses indicate a by-the-way information, whereas dashes are used with a core subject, e.g.:

  • The next Scalania will take place at the National Stadium—where JAVEO is located.
  • This year's Warsaw Book Fair will take place at the National Stadium (where JAVEO is located).

In the first example, information about the location of JAVEO is crucial, since we hold Scalania meetings. In the latter sentence it is not important at all. It might mean: ‘you know, the stadium where JAVEO is located’, or: ‘and by the way, JAVEO is located at the National Stadium’.

Em dashes might also be used to print dialogues, e.g.:

—This code is a mess!—shouted Mike—Who wrote it?

—Try ‘git-blame’ to find it out.—John replied.

It is not a typical way to represent a dialogue in English literature, but it is common in some other languages.

In English there is typically no space right before or after the em dash. In some other languages, however, spaces are commonly used. Some publishers even use an en dash with spaces instead. The latter is often seen in Polish publications.

Minus

Dashes are designed to look nice in text—usually between two lower-case letters. Numbers, on the contrary, look better with a minus (−) character, which resembles an en dash, but is slightly shifted up. Plus and minus signs should always be designed to match each other. Actually, a minus should look like a horizontal bar from a plus character.

Note that in some cases a dash could be mistaken for a minus. You should not stick to the rules, if they are likely to cause any confusion, e.g. instead of: −10–10°C, you might want to write: −10 – 10°C, or even −10—10°C.

Quotation marks

Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.

― Ambrose Bierce

There are only two characters representing quotation marks in the ASCII table—the single quotation mark (aka apostrophe) and the double quotation mark—and neither of them is really correct. These are ambidextrous characters, previously introduced to limit the number of the keys needed on a typewriter’s keyboard. Properly, opening (left) and closing (right) quotation marks should differ. In many fonts, they resemble respectively sixes and nines in superscript.

In American English, double quotation marks (“…”) are most commonly used. Single quotation marks (‘…’) indicate a nested quotation, e.g. in this excerpt from “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer: “Did you know that ‘I told you so’ has a brother, Jacob?” she asked cutting me off. “His name is ‘Shut the hell up’.”

In British English, it is usually just the other way about—single quotation marks are primarily used, with nested double quotation marks.

In many languages, different forms of quotation marks are used. In Polish, for instance, a low nine-shaped double quotation mark („…”) opens a quotation. Instead of nested quotation marks, on the other hand, one places inverted guillemets (»…«), i.e. this is „a »quote« inside a quote”.

The act of repeating erroneously the words of another

In British English, it is usually just the other way about—single quotation marks are primarily used, with nested double quotation marks. In many languages, different forms of quotation marks are used.

Apostrophe

As in the case of quotation marks, there is also no proper apostrophe (’) on the keyboard. Instead of the default typewriter character, a single closing quotation mark should be used, e.g. YAML Ain’t Markup Language.

Some modern text editors automatically convert ASCII characters to proper opening or closing quotation marks. This conversion is usually correct, but there is one pitfall, you should beware of. If a year is abbreviated to the last two digits, it should be preceded with an apostrophe. So you can write, I spent the New Year’s Eve of ’99 at home (apostrophe), but there is a song called ‘99 Red Balloons’ (single quotation marks). Most editors will convert both cases as the latter.

Feet and inches

So finally, which characters should be used to indicate units of measurement—such as feet and inches, or minutes and seconds—typewriter quotation marks or proper closing quotation marks? The answer is, neither of them. There are two other characters: prime (′) and double prime (″), e.g.:

  • I am 5′ 10″ tall.
  • The latitude and longitude of the JAVEO office are: 52° 14′ 20″ N, 21° 02′ 50″ E.

Ellipses

We danced on the beach, kissed on the beach and dot, dot, dot.

― Sophie reading Donna’s diary, “Mamma Mia!”, 2008

An ellipsis (…) or, in other words, ‘dot, dot, dot’, has no single meaning. It might indicate a pause in speech, but in a quotation, it is usually put instead of an omitted fragment of text.

There is a common misconception that this punctuation mark is nothing more than three full stops. However, since correct spacing is important for the readability of ellipses, three successive periods would not be typographically correct. So instead, a single Unicode ellipsis character should be used.

Spaces

Space: the final frontier.

― Captain James T. Kirk, “Star Trek: The Original Series”

“How can I make any error in a space?”, you may ask.

Well… you can.

In general, spaces are used to separate words. Problems start when they should be next to a punctuation mark. It is always good to remember that spaces indicate places, where the text can be broken into lines. So you should put a space after a punctuation mark related to the preceding contents, and before a punctuation mark related to the following contents.

A full stop, for instance, indicates the end of a sentence. Thus, it should not be preceded by a space. A similar rule applies to question marks, exclamation marks, commas, colons, semicolons and ellipses.

Brackets and quotation marks, on the other hand, should be kept with the text surrounded by them. So the space should be placed before the opening mark, and after the closing mark.

Units of measurement

When a number is followed by a unit symbol starting with a letter, a space should be inserted in between, e.g. 1 kg, 10 m, 2 h. However, there are no spaces before non-alphabetic symbols like percent, feet and inches, or degrees: 45°, 10%, 6′ 2″.

However, there are many other rules that you should follow.

In some languages, there is a rule to never end a line of text with a very short word. In Polish, for example, one-letter words should always be followed by non-breaking spaces.

Non-breaking spaces

In some cases, however, a non-breaking space is required, so that a line break will be avoided. Measurement units are a good example—you probably want to keep them right next to the number. It would look strange, if the ‘kilogram’ from 1 kg was suddenly moved to another line.

Not only unit symbols, but also any word describing a number should be separated by a non-breaking space, e.g. a date: May 9, or a reference to another part of the document: chapter 5, section 2.1, page 104.

In some languages, there is a rule to never end a line of text with a very short word. In Polish, for example, one-letter words should always be followed by non-breaking spaces. On the other hand, in English, it is perfectly fine to leave words like ‘I’ or ‘a’ at the end of the line (unless it is the last word of the paragraph—then it looks peculiar).


These are just several errors that I have frequently seen in software and documentation. However, there are many other rules that you should follow.

Also, as you may have noticed, some of the principles vary between languages. It is always a good idea to consult the style guide before publishing the text.

Cheat sheet for programmers

Character HTML Java String Android XML LaTeX
hyphen (-) - - - -
en dash (–) – \u2013 – --
em dash (—) — \u2014 — ---
minus (−) − \u2212 − $-$
apostrophe (’) ’ \u2019 ’ '
left single quotation mark (‘) ‘ \u2018 ‘ `
right single quotation mark (’) ’ \u2019 ’ '
left double quotation mark (“) “ \u201C “ ` `
right double quotation mark (”) ” \u201D ” ''
double low-9 quotation mark („) „ \u201E „ ,,
left pointing guillemet («) &laquo; \u00AB &#171; <<
right pointing guillemet (») &raquo; \u00BB &#187; >>
prime (′) &prime; \u2032 &#8242; $'$ or $\prime$
double prime (″) &Prime; \u2033 &#8243; $''$ or $\dprime$
ellipsis (…) &hellip; \u2026 &#8230; \ldots
non-breaking space &nbsp; \u00A0 &#160; ~

Bibliography

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