Desktop publishing typography

One of the things that the common typewriter, and poor schooling, has done, is ruin proper typography.  The average typewriter is incapable of using all the right symbols, and many people don’t know what they are, anyway.  Many people are so used to seeing and using the wrong ones, that they don’t know that they are the wrong ones.  This page discusses some of the common, and correct, typography; particularly in regards to punctuation.


The use of symbols (non-alphabetical characters) to punctuate the text into meaningful sections (breaking apart phrases and sentences, indicating abbreviations, etc.).  This is something that we should have learnt in primary school, though many people seem to have forgotten how to do it properly, and picked up bad habits in the meantime.  Most of the rest of this document discusses more of the special punctuation characters, so I'll just briefly mention some of the ordinary stuff, then move onto the less understood ones.


Used at the end of a sentence.  They do not have any blank space before them, they jam right up to the last character that's written.  They do have blank space after them (before a following sentence).  Really good typography puts a wider than normal space between sentences, typists did this by typing two spaces in a row (as does this document), good publishing software should have some better way of doing a wider space using a single wider space character (perhaps automatically).  (There's a section about spaces further down this page.)


Used between parts of sentences, and between items in a list.  They do not have any blank space before them, they jam right up to the last character that's written.  They do have blank space after them (before the following characters).


Used to enclose additional information that may help with understanding something, but could easily be omitted.  They're sometimes added to quoted text to insert something that the speaker didn't say, in the sentence that was quoted, but they make it more clear what they were talking about.

They do have a blank space before the opening bracket, as long as the opening bracket isn't the first thing in a new block of text.  They do not have blank spaces inside the brackets, between the bracketted information and the brackets.  And they do not have blank spaces after the closing bracket if some other punctuation follows the closing bracket (such as a comma or full-stop), but do have a trailing blank space if followed by other characters.  Punctuation goes outside the bracket if the bracketed information is part of a sentence, punctuation goes inside the bracket if the bracketed information is a sentence, or phrase, by itself.

The incorrect use of spacing around and between brackets, apart from being wrong, means that they won't line-wrap properly when they break across the right-hand margin.

This page is full of examples of brackets used in those different situations.


There’s more to properly using dashes than’s immediately obvious.  Proper typesetting uses dashes differently than a simple typewriter, which generally only have a “hyphen” key.  There are several different things which may look similar to each other, but are actually different, and are meant to look different (heights and widths), and be used in different and particular situations:

How you enter these different characters depends on your program.  Some can try to automatically pick the right ones (depending on what you’ve typed around them), or you can use special keyboard tricks (combinations of keys or characters), or pick the character from a menu (e.g. an “insert special character” function).  It’s common for word processors to let you type in a double-dash where you want it to use an em dash (it’ll convert it), but note that typing a double-dash for an em-dash is a publishing software “trick” (it’s a code to get the software to replace what you typed with the right character), actually printing two dashes is improper.  Some software will exchange a typed-in _ underscore character for a dash (since an underscore is a generally useless character in documentation—underlining something is not done by typing underscores over the top of other characters, there's a separate process for creating underlined text—it's a good candidate for being usurped for another function, seeing as there's generally no key on the keyboard to type a proper dash).

The em-dash

This is a dash around the size of the letter “M” (hence the name).  It’s used when there are pauses, and changes in thought.  There are no blank spaces either side of it, it jams immediately between the text that it breaks apart, though typesetters will often put what’s known as a “hair space” (a tiny amount of space) either side of it, so it doesn’t actually touch the adjacent characters (something that you’re probably not able to do with DTP software—don’t be tempted to insert whacking great big ordinary spaces in, it looks awful and can mess up line wrapping).

e.g. “I had read about the ‘mummy parties’ that the Victorians occasionally held where people were invited to an evening event with drinks and food and the centrepiece was the unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy—ostensibly for educational purposes, but really just for the sensationalism of it.”

The en-dash

This is a dash around the size of the letter “N” (hence the name), and about half the size of the em-dash.  It’s used between items that are a range of things, and to link some words with special relationships between each other (e.g. the names of two authors who wrote a play).  As with the em-dash, there are no blank spaces around it; it fits immediately between the characters around it (other than the use of hair-spaces, if you can do them).

e.g. The English alphabet uses the character A–Z.

The hyphen

This is the dash that we’re all familiar with on typewriters.  It’s used in hyphenated words (though note that it’s easier to read words that aren’t broken over the end of lines, so it’s better to let a word processor adjust the inter-word spacing within a line to push long words onto the next line, rather than break words at the right-hand margin).  And like the other dashes, it doesn’t have any spacing around it.

e.g. Hyphenating double-barrelled words.

The minus sign

The mathematical operator is yet another dash-like character.  It’s an independent character for use in mathematical formulae.  (I haven’t found an authoritative reference source for whether formulae are spaced apart, or all the symbols are jammed close together.)

e.g. 2 − 1 = 1 or 2−1=1

Mathematical symbols

I've already mentioned the minus sign, but there's other mathematical symbols as well.  Decent programs will allow you to use the proper ones (probably having to pick them from a menu, or character box).  For instance, the times operator is not actually a letter “x” character, even if it looks somewhat like it.  There's a proper character for that job, that should print in the proper place between the numerals.  Likewise for the division symbol, and various other mathematical operators, and other special symbols.

e.g. 4 × 3 ÷ 2 = 6


There’s a special character for drawing horizonal ellipses, rather than typing in three dots (with or without spaces between them).  Using the right one should mean that they print out looking correct (the right amount of spacing between them), as well as assisting in the layout of the document (the processor can rearrange things neatly, if needed during re-editing, such as not spreading them across the end of a line onto the next one, and being able to tell that you haven’t accidentally used more than one full-stop when error-checking a document).

e.g. Once upon a time…


Proper quotes (tiny 66 and 99 sort-of looking symbols in a superscript sort-of position in the line of text) don’t look like the crude approximations used on most typewriters and plain text editors (symetrical “vampire teeth” looking things above the text).  Many word processors have the ability to use the right characters, either automatically replacing the crude ones as you enter text, or picking them from an insert special character function.  If you can use the right ones, you may as well do so; it looks much better.

The Australian way to do quotes is to use the so-called double-quote marks around quoted text, with punctuation inside the closing quote mark (unless it’s necessary for understanding [see example 1], or the punctuation doesn’t belong with the quoted material; such as a question about what someone said, when what the other person said wasn’t a question [see example 2]).  Quotes inside quotes use single-quote marks [see example 2, again].  Quotes of quotes inside quotes revert back to double quotes, but you’re far better off to rewrite your text than cope with that mess.

  1. Your password is “abczyx”.

  2. “Did he really say:  ‘Type it like that!’?”

If you’re quoting great blocks of text, then the proper way to do that is to open each paragraph with double-quotes, and only put a closing double-quote mark at the end of all the text (not at the end of each paragraph).


There are different sized spaces available to be used between characters, some of which will vary throughout a document based on what’s around it (yet one reason why you don’t format documents using blank spaces), other spacing sizes will be based on your choice of space to be used.

Some different spaces:
Example type
x x em space
x x en space
x x blank space
x x non-breaking space
x x thin space

Some of these may not display properly on some web browsers, they're a bit primitive regarding decent typography.

The “en” and “em” spaces, and dashes, are so named for occuping the space used to print the capital letter “N” or “M”, likewise with “ex” referring to the space used to print a lower case “x”.  They allow measurements to be used that are related to the size of the text being printed.  It should be noted that they're not the same size as those particular characters, but the space used to print them; which includes the usual blank space printed around those characters, on all four sides.

Blank spaces

What’s generally referred to as a “blank space” is typed between adjacent words.  It’s typically a width that suits the font (typestyle) being used, though the size of the inter-word and inter-character spacing may be variable when the program is set to justify lines of text so that they all have the same right margin (yet another reason why trying to tabulate text with blank spaces fails badly).

A blank space is what you normally get when you press the space bar on the keyboard.

Thick spaces

A wider than normal blank space.  There are em and en spaces; spaces that are the same size as the em and en (a typesetting measurement based on the “size” of the M or N characters; note that it’s not the height or width, but the overall size of the character required by the printing process, which includes spacing around it).

It’s normal to have a wider than normal blank space between sentences inside a paragraph (not spacing between paragraphs).  Typically, it’s somewhere around 1.5 times the normal blank space (this aids with reading).  Likewise, extra spacing is made after colons.

Proper typesetting does that with a different width space, but where that’s not possible the same effect is usually achieved by typing two consecutive spaces.

Thin spaces

A thinner than normal space.

Hair space

A very tiny space.

Non-breaking spaces

There are times when you want to words (or other items) to be kept together, so that if one of them occurs close to the end of a line, the next one doesn’t get broken onto the next line (because it looks bad, or makes things less coherent; such as the space between Mr. and a name, or inside mathematical formulae).  Instead they both will get pushed onto the next line, together.  This is done by using a “non-breaking space” between them.  It’s a character that produces a space, but will disallows a line break where it is (normally, line breaks can occur where blank spaces are, and after certain characters; like the hyphen).

It’s quite common for word processors to let you type a non-breaking space by pressing the space bar with a qualifier key (perhaps the CTRL or ALT key).  Also note that while it’s expected that a non-breaking space would be the same size as a normal blank space, that may not be the case.

Foreign characters

Even for the English language, the letters A–Z (as found on ordinary typewriters) are inadequate, and English documents can include foreign words (e.g. names).  English has adopted words from other languages, ones using letters with accents (which should still be used, in many cases), and letters that are joined together called “ligatures” (which should be used in preference to typing two adjacent letters that merely look the same).  Most modern software can type them properly, though you might need to learn the keyboard tricks to type them, use a character picker, or automatic correction tools.

e.g. encyclopædia or resumé

Homepage, computing, DTP, next.

Main sections:
contact details
business info
personal info
eBay & trading
“sales” ads
“wanted” ads
video production
misc info
website info/help
my computers
general info
desktop publishing
typing skills
WWW authoring
internet primer
turn it off?
electrical safety