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On quotation marks and other puzzling punctuation

November 01, 2017 by Peter Glaab

“Whoever does not respect the penny is not worthy of the dollar”. This proverb also applies to the conscious use of punctuation marks in text setting. Typography with impressive features that appear striking at first glance is compelling – font selection and a blend of fonts, appropriate line length, appropriate line spacing and typographic emphasis. The minutest details are just as important: comma, semicolon, period, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, brackets, hyphen and dash.

These punctuation marks serve to represent the language of the written word in a comprehensible manner, because, contrary to the spoken language, the accentuating and rhythmic language melody is absent in the written word. Punctuation marks are used to enhance our understanding of the text ‒ they place words into a connecting or disconnecting relationship and they structure sentences. A missing comma is enough to make us stumble around in the sentence; at worst, we no longer understand it.

If the importance of a correctly punctuated sentence had seemed negligible to you, this will perk up your ears. Three arguments speak clearly for that:

The following orthographical rules are part of the German spelling system. The Council for German Orthography sets them. Okay, so then everything is clear, one might think. But it is not that easy, because several obstacles make it difficult to implement the rules aesthetically.

The font designer determines how long a dash is, in what proportion the dash stands with respect to the hyphen, and what position and width a punctuation mark embodies.

In the era of lead typesetting, a separate cut was made for each font size. The punch cutter changed the degree of boldness, the tracking and the proportions of the letters. Small font sizes were slightly stronger, had more stable serifs, a higher x-height and a slightly greater width. Large font sizes for headlines, on the other hand, had more contrast, with reduced tracking and altered proportions of the ascenders and descenders. These optical adjustments were necessary to ensure visual consistency across all font sizes. However, most digital font designs are based on only one drawing for a particular application size (fortunately more and more well-equipped fonts with optical sizes are emerging). In extreme application sizes, punctuation marks can therefore be too bold or too light, too short or too long, too low or too high, and too close or too far from other characters.

The micro-typographic tasks of the typographer therefore include using the proper punctuation marks, paying careful attention to the aesthetic details (form and size of the punctuation marks), and rectifying visual defects in typesetting (bad kerning).

Punctuation marks without spacing

The following punctuation marks appear immediately after the last letter of the word, followed by a space before the next word: Comma, semicolon; period. colon: question mark? exclamation point!

The period

There is little that needs to be said about the period at the end of the sentence: that goes without saying. The correct use of the period in the case of abbreviations and omissions as well as of the dot/point in its function as a structuring element is more interesting.

There is a period after an abbreviation that is fully pronounced. If two abbreviations follow each other, they are separated by a flexible space. A flexible space is 1/8 em in InDesign or about 20 percent of standard em in QuarkXpress. If the sentence ends with an abbreviation, the period at the end is omitted.

Currency units, measurements, weights as well as physicochemical data also do not require the period: cm (centimeter), km (kilometers), kg (kilogram), °C (degrees Celsius).

Abbreviations of names from uppercase letters do not include a period or full stop after each letter. They are set in small caps and slightly increased letter-spacing, so they fit better into the line. The same applies to acronyms, which are pronounced as a word.

Some naturalized proper names begin with a capital letter such as Unesco and Benelux.

In calendars, abbreviated weekdays do not require a period: So, Mo, Di, Mi, Do, Fr and Sa. In contrast, the period is commonly used with abbreviated months: Jan., Feb., Mrz., Apr., Mai, Juni, Juli, Aug., Sep., Okt., Nov., Dez.

In the technical jargon, the term ellipsis refers to three consecutive dots that replace parts of a word or sentence. If they replace a word, a word space is allowed before and after. If they replace part of a word, they are added directly after the last letter.

Other punctuation marks are separated by a word spacing from the ellipsis. However, a subsequent comma is placed behind it without a space. The period is not required at the end of the sentence if it ends with an ellipsis.

In specialist articles one often finds abbreviated citations [...], characterized by an ellipsis with enclosing square brackets. The punctuation does not require spacing.

Although the ellipsis is a special character (Mac: Alt+., Win: Alt+0130), you should always check whether it is useful or whether inserting three individual dots is not the better choice. These can be set manually if necessary. Some ellipses also differ formally with respect to the dots, which has a disruptive effect.

In the German numerical system, numbers with more than four digits can be divided by a point or by a flexible space for the sake of clarity. It is subdivided from behind into groups of three. Caution: In German, points/dots are used to denote money amounts in thousands and beyond! In English, a comma is used instead of the point as the thousands separator and points or dots are used as decimal separators.

The question mark and the exclamation point

Both punctuation marks replace the period at the end of the sentence. In most cases, no additional space is required. Bad font kerning can cause problems when the space between question marks or exclamation points and the text or other punctuation marks is not tight or loose enough. In that case, the spacing must be done by hand.

In combination with the punctuation marks dash, colon, or ellipses, the spacing is slightly increased by kerning or by 1/24 em (if the font requires it).

Horizontal strokes

Horizontal strokes are used in typography for line-breaks, for inserting an idea within a sentence, for bullet lists or route specifications. There are four variants: the em dash, the dash, the hyphen and the underscore.

The hyphen

The hyphen is the shortest horizontal stroke and measures 1/4 em. It connects letters that are linked together, words, digits or abbreviations. It hyphenates difficult-to-read or long, composite terms and is always set without any space in-between. There is often confusion about the correct way to hyphenate. The rule in German is: once you start to hyphenate, you must hyphenate throughout. Combinations with suffixes are not hyphenated.

Line breaks The line break and the hyphen share the same sign, but embody the opposite meaning. Words are separated by a line break at the end of the line. This usually happens automatically. However, one should not rely blindly on the break generated automatically. The software is unable to distinguish between good and bad forms of breaks. In fact, the assessment of what is good and what is bad depends on the question of how it reads (in a specific case).

The “Show hidden characters” command in the InDesign Font menu allows you to display control characters and check whether a conditional line break was inserted, for instance, at the end of the first line.
The “Show hidden characters” command in the InDesign Font menu allows you to display control characters and check whether a conditional line break was inserted, for instance, at the end of the first line.

Without going too deep into the subject of line breaks, every designer should be aware of the conditional line break. This control character has magical qualities! If you want to improve a line break in InDesign manually, or introduce a break, place the cursor at the desired position and hold down the keys Shift+Cmd+Divis (Mac OS) or Ctrl+Shift+Divis (Windows). If the break changes owing to a subsequent text insertion, the conditional line break will magically disappear. There will be no irritating separating artefacts. By the way, Word also offers the option of conditional line breaks.

The en dash

The en dash is the Swiss pocketknife among the punctuation marks. It is very versatile and familiar to us as a dash.

Not interested in a comma or a colon? That is when the dash comes into play! It expresses a pause within a sentence and marks a conscious insertion in the sentence. The dash is always preceded and succeeded by a word space. In continuous text, it is advisable to set a non-breaking space before the dash (Mac OS: Alt+Space, Windows: Alt+0150) so that the dash does not land at the beginning of the next line, which would make a hole in the left-hand vertical edge.

Rounded money amounts without decimal points are written with a comma and an en dash: “34,– Euro”

In the case of date specifications, the en dash replaces the word “until”. It requires no space before and after.

In the train schedule, the route-dash connects two places directly. According to Duden, it is used without space.

The en dash is also used for sporting or political encounters; the use of the flexible space is recommended.

The minus sign is used as an algebraic sign without spacing before the number. In mathematical setting, it is used as an operator between two variables with a word space.

In lists, the en dash is used as a bullet. It looks more elegant than the “chubby” hyphen and is followed by a gap of at least one word space, a little more room is more preferable.

The em dash

The use of the em dash in a German sentence is uncommon and therefore it is considered downright exotic. In an English sentence, on the other hand, it enjoys great currency as a dash. Here, however, it is used without any gap between two terms.

The slash

The slash combines names, numbers, or terms, and identifies relationships. It expresses alternatives (masculine/feminine) and replaces the word “per” (km/h). In principle, the slash is used without a gap when connecting terms or numbers. However, for aesthetic reasons, it may be useful to place a small space (1/24 em) in front of and behind it to avoid touching the slash with adjacent characters. This always depends on the character combination and the font used. This is especially important in case of letters or characters with ascenders and descenders.

When using a slash between paired concepts, a non-breaking space is inserted before the slash and a normal word space thereafter. The non-breaking space prevents the slash from slipping to the beginning of the next line in the event of a line break, which would tear a hole into the left-hand vertical edge.

Brackets, quotation marks and apostrophes


Round brackets, also referred to as parentheses, enclose explanatory additions and insertions that bear no special significance. Square brackets are used as brackets inside round brackets and for supplementary letters or parts of words. A normal word space is required outside the brackets, within the brackets the adjacent character is placed without a gap. However, you should ensure that the brackets do not touch the adjacent characters and, if necessary, space them with small gaps.

Quotation marks

Not only do those not skilled in typography make blunders when using quotation marks. Those skilled also experience similar challenges. It is possible to encounter incorrect and incorrectly used quotes on a daily basis, in advertisements, on TV, and even in online journalism, as on

Quotation marks characterize direct speech, highlight terms, express irony or a negative attitude to a claim. In the German sentence, three variants of the double quotes are allowed: »these«, «these» and „those“. Examples 1 and 2 are guillemets (French quotation marks), example 3 denotes German quotation marks, commonly known as “Gänsefüßchen” (“goose-feet”) in German. The rule of thumb for this variant is: 99 below – 66 above.

Which variant of the quotation marks you use is not just a matter of taste; ultimately, the formal range of German quotes stretches from boring to breathtakingly expressive. The case for the use of the pointed guillemets is that they fit better into the sentence than the “German quotes”. These resemble the apostrophes and commas, and disturb the line formation because of their off-center position.

Single quotation marks are used to highlight terms in the text, or when more than two levels of quotation marks are required in one sentence. The shape and orientation of the single quotes is always the same as that of the double. Although the single quote is very similar to the comma, it is allotted a separate character (Mac OS: Alt+s, Windows: Alt+0130). The quotation marks are used without space. Only in the “French” variant peaking to the outside, they must be slightly spaced (1/8 em) in order to ensure that they do not “adhere” to the adjacent signs. This variant is common in France and in Switzerland.

The quotation marks in the English sentence always have the form: 66 above, 99 above. Simple quotes are often used as a standard, the double quotes are used only within quotes.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the proper German term for closing quotation marks is not Abführungszeichen but Schlusszeichen or Ausführungszeichen.

The apostrophe

The apostrophe seems to be one of the most popular punctuation marks: many people use it, even when there is no need for it. Anyone who uses pseudo-genitive apostrophes in German, embellishes the plural forms with apostrophes, or considers their use for purely aesthetic reasons, is grossly negligent.

A greengrocer’s apostrophe in two respects: superfluous with regard to content and grammatically false.
A greengrocer’s apostrophe in two respects: superfluous with regard to content and grammatically false.

In fact, the apostrophe is only allowed to serve in one function in German – as an ellipsis. It also replaces the genitive s after proper names ending with s, ss, ß, tz, z, and x. For English names ending with ce or th, both are allowed: the genitive “s“ or the apostrophe.

Apart from the grammatically incorrect use, usually, there is ignorance about how the apostrophe actually looks, let alone where on the keyboard it is to be found. The best-known pseudo-apostrophes are the foot/minute symbols ('), accents (´`), which are meaningless without letters beneath them, or the single quote in English (‘). The only true apostrophe has the form of a raised comma (’). It can be inserted on the Mac using the keyboard command Shift+Alt+#, on Windows it is Alt+0146.

Quality of fonts

A reasonable kerning of the punctuation marks (and of all other signs, of course) is one of the quality features of a good font. Inadequately digitized fonts from the lead-era often show deficiencies in this regard. In the case of body text, however, poor kerning has a fatal effect, since disproportionately high efforts are necessary to compensate for all badly spaced punctuation marks.

High-quality fonts sometimes contain specially optimized punctuation for use with uppercase letters and small caps. The position of brackets, horizontal lines, and guillemets is raised to the baseline when setting text in all uppercase. When setting in small caps, the punctuation marks are proportionally reduced and match the line weight of the small caps. These application-dependent punctuation marks can be realized in InDesign using the command “All Caps” and the OpenType function “All Small Caps”.

Extra punctuation marks are very useful for setting text in uppercase and small caps, as offered by Novel Sans Pro.
Extra punctuation marks are very useful for setting text in uppercase and small caps, as offered by Novel Sans Pro.

The rules and recommendations listed here cover only a small part of the ortho-typographic practice. For further reading on the topic, I recommend the standard work “Detailtypografie” by Forssman / de Jong.

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