Stuart Lambon

Dashes, dumb quotes and double spacing

As much as I didn’t want this blog to become a place where I would lament over things, I admit defeat already as there are three things that I consistently notice in design (or more specifically, typesetting) that bug me more than probably anything else. Of course there are the really obvious things such as: design clichés, the stretched typefaces and plenty of examples of bad typography everywhere. However, there are three things that would go into my ‘Room 101’ of type without a hesitation of thought.

I really don’t wish to sound like a pedant but it’s already a little late for that—especially when talking about micro typography! I would never expect the average computer user or writer to worry about these nuances but these are things that I think people involved in design or professional writing really should get right but rarely do.

1. Incorrect use of dashes

There are 3 common types of dashes: the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash ( – – — ) but unfortunately only one included on computer keyboards. For this reason the hyphen usually works as an alias for all three. The en dash – is one half of an em dash and an em dash — is one em and both have different functions. For those who are interested there are also the subtraction symbol, a figure dash (standard numeral width), the three-quarter em dash and the three-to-em dash (⅓ em) but the latter two are rarely included in most typefaces.


There is only 3 functions for a hyphen:

  1. To split a word (usually onto the next line)
  2. To join compound words. e.g. state-of-the-art
  3. To join prefixes to words. e.g. anti-, ex-, mid-

En and em dashes

Usually the en dash is totally ignored and the em dash usually replaced by a typist by the all so familiar but ugly double hypen (- -). The em dash is used to demarcate a parenthetical thought, and is usually spaced with hair spaces. If deemed too long could be replaced with an en dash but it is down to personal preference and style really. The most common use for an en dash is to indicate a range of something, for instance: 9–10 November or 2:00–5.00pm. Robert Bringhurst also explains that ‘the em dash, followed by a thin space (M/5) or word space, is the normal European method of marking dialogue, and it is much less fussy than quotation marks’ (Bringhurst, 2008, pp.81).

This brings me nicely onto my second complaint:

2. The use of dumb quotation marks

Typewriters were a great invention but they are also the reason behind the introduction of ‘dumb quotes’. Also known as typewriter, neutral, vertical or straight quotes these glyphs have no typographic function other than to save space on a keyboard. Instead of ‘this’ or “this”, everyone in English should be doing ‘this’ and “this” — using typographic or smart quotes. Quotation marks are ugly at the best of times and usually overused, but there honestly is no reason for using dumb quotes in anything that is intended to be permanent or professional. I need to reiterate my clause at the beginning of this post here; I am not talking about the average computer user here as I wouldn’t want anyone taking as much time as I do to make sure I get the correctly angled quote mark when sending a quick text to a friend! It’s only when I see newspapers, publications, signage companies, design firms and web agencies using dumb quotes consistently that it irates me. Unfortunately this is all too common.

There are various quotation marks used around the world; alternatives to the aforementioned above (common in the UK and USA) there are:

„Baseline and inverted commas“
« Guillemets, or angle quotes »
» Guillemets, or angle quotes reversed «

Given my choice I’d happily remove quotation marks an replace simply with italics or something contrasting, however I think in the UK or in the USA we’d be better off adapting the more European » guillemets « if it helped remove the use of dumb quotes.

3. Double spacing after a full stop/period

Please.  Don’t.  Do.   This.

If there’s one thing that stops the flow whilst I’m reading something it’s another annoying habit left over from the typewriter years again: the double space.  Due to typewriters using monospaced fonts the spacing of some glyphs appeared quite wide; letters such as i or l needed to fit into the same space as wider letters such as m or w.  A double space after the full stop was adopted to give a clearer definition at the end of the sentence and many people were taught this, even during the computer age.  Both The Chicago Manual of Style and the Guardian style guide denote the use of a single space.

Sorry I forcibly double-spaced that last paragraph.

This article on Slate explains why you should never use a double space.



Bringhurst, R. (2004). The Elements of Typographic Style (3rd ed.). Vancouver: Hartley & Marks.