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Maureen, Radar Collective Think Tank

Cleaning up Bad Typography—10 Rules at a Time

Just about every week, one of the blogs I subscribe to posts articles on the worst grammar mistakes. For example: This always reminds me of the designer’s equivalent, typography mistakes. Google “typography mistakes” and you’ll find many results on the subject.

My favorite treatment of the subject comes in the form of a poster by Jim Godfrey entitled, “Thirty-four Typographic Sins.” I first saw the poster—and the list of sins—in HOW magazine. If, like me, you’re a nerd and keep every back issue, you’ll find it in the July 2011 issue.

Today I’m highlighting the 10 most offensive sins (and the easiest to remedy):

1. Two spaces between sentences
I have gotten into heated arguments over this. There was a time when two spaces after a period was necessary. Those were the days of typewriters with monospaced letters. Don’t get me wrong, I love a typewriter (the Olivetti Valentine makes it on my list for Santa every year), but we don’t live in a time of typewriters. Typefaces are designed to give each character the appropriate amount of space. All of these things makes two spaces after the period archaic.

2. Dumb apostrophes (or quotes) instead of smart ones

Apostrophes and quotes marks should curl (a smart quote). If your quotes and apostrophes are little straight lines, you’re using feet and inch marks (a dumb quote).

3. Failing to tuck periods/commas inside quote marks
“This one is fairly simple,” I said. (yes)
He replied, “Yes, it does seem quite simple”. (no)

4. Using a hyphen instead of an en dash (or two hyphens instead of em dash)
- hyphen
A hyphen is used to hyphenate words like, twenty-two.

– en dash (width of the average letter N)
An en dash denotes a range of numbers, or in place of the word “to” in a duration of time (2:00–5:00).

— em dash (width of the average letter M)
An em dash shows a change in thought—or parenthetical phrase—within a sentence. Exactly what I did in that last sentence.

5. Underlining titles instead of italicizing them
Again, an archaic rule that we can thank the typewriter for.

6. Widows and orphans

I’ve reached a level of typographic obsessions where I try to avoid these when I’m handwriting something.
A widow is a word at the end of a paragraph that is on a line by itself.
An orphan is the last line of a paragraph that sits at the top of a column by itself.

7. Indenting the first paragraph
An indented paragraph says to the reader, “Hey!! I’m a new paragraph!” The first paragraph already has enough attention (it is first), so there’s no need for the special treatment.

8. Failing to hang punctuation into the margin

This applies to any text that is not body copy (also known as display text). Punctuation has less visual weight than letters and numbers. Hanging the punctuation in the margin visually compensates for this contrast.

9. Bad line breaks in headlines and body text
Depending on when a line is broken, text (and the meaning) can be harder to read.
For instance:
Typography mistakes hurt everyone, but we
can remedy them.

10. Failing to indent bulleted lists

The second line of a bullet point should be indented to line up with the first line of the previous line.

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2 thoughts on “Cleaning up Bad Typography—10 Rules at a Time

  1. I think you’re wrong about tucking punctuation inside quotes. it’s not a simple rule, it’s a complex rule.

    If the sentence starts before the quotes, then it finishes after the quotes, so your second example is not wrong, it’s correct.

    On the other hand, suppose the quotes had started the sentence. “Like this”, he said helpfully, “like dialogue in a novel.” In that case, the full stop stays inside the quotes.

    My pet hate is when people put, for example, the name of a song in single quotes, but then put a comma inside – ‘A hard day’s night,’ for example – which could only be correct if the comma was part of the song title. (Which it isn’t.)

    Posted by defides | March 30, 2012, 4:15 am
  2. Ha ha, nice list! I feel very paranoid writing this comment now… I always get mixed up with em and en dashes, but this has cleared it up, thank you!

    Posted by typesketchbook | April 2, 2012, 1:45 pm

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