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June 2001

Sparky's Typesetting School, Part 2

OK, now it's time to tackle the commonly abused dashes and hyphens. (This one's for you, Brad, baby.) This is an area of typesetting that people always seem to get wrong, presumably from some combination of never learning the rules and not being able to easily typeset the correct marks. I certainly don't recall ever learning about the correct use of dashes during any of my school days, except for a few basic principles about how to hyphenate words properly. But, like correct use of apostrophes and quotation marks, there's a method to the madness. When everything is used properly, there's just enough difference between the marks to offer adequate visual clues as to what's going on without too much distraction. that’s the point, kids: not to be super fussy, but to follow a system developed over time so you could know what was going on right away without thinking about it too much. Trouble is, that all breaks down when no one learns the system.

The apostrophe issue is a big aggravation, but the dash issue is really my pet peeve. It seems as if no one ever uses them correctly, software never sets them properly, and people barely even use them in a consistent wrong way, which makes it horrible to proofread and correct a manuscript.

This is the one everyone knows and everyone uses. It's easy, it's always been right there on your typewriter and computer keyboards, but it's not meant to be the factotum we've made it. Use a hyphen when words break at the end of a line, when you have compound adjectives or phrases, or in hyphenated names. Compare the hyphen to the other dashes here — it's the shortest of the lot, because it's supposed to suggest a very close relationship between what's on either side.

En Dash
Almost always ignored and replaced with a hyphen, which is dead wrong. The en dash, like the en space, is so named because it is exactly half the width of an em (see below, but if you ever played scrabble a lot you probably already learned that at some point). It is used to denote an interval of some kind (1980–90, 1990–2000, A–Z, Parts 1–5, etc.) and in some complex compound phrases. Think of is as meaning "to" or "through." Notice that it's longer than a hyphen.

Em Dash
An em is a unit of typographic measurement equal in width to the point size of the font (in theory, the width of a capital M). Notice how the em dash — like these here — is noticeably wider than a hyphen. It is used to offset a related sentence fragment within a sentence. In bibliographies, three em dashes in a row are used when a piece of information, such as an author's name, is unknown. It's a very clear visual cue that something is missing, or being dropped in. It's bigger than a hyphen because it needs to be seen more clearly. A hyphen with spaces on either side just doesn't do the trick, kids. Ideally, there should be a wee bit of space on either side of an em dash, but most computer fonts have never drawn it that way, so don't be afraid to kern in a little air around your dashes.

When you're typing an e-mail or preparing a manuscript for someone else to e-mail, you're basically forced to use hyphens instead of the other dashes, which are not part of the most basic ASCII character set. Please, I beg you, follow these accepted rules of thumb:

By the way, this is a great reference for setting all these characters properly for your web pages. Again, you will find very clear rules for grammatical usage in Words Into Type or your preferred style manual, which is good because I don't want to get into all of them.

Sparky's Typesetting School, Part I

Like many others, I have a profound respect for correct use of the poor apostrophe. I’m going to take the issue a step further, however, and complain about a very particular pet peeve of mine: the flagrant misuse of correct punctuation marks when setting type. Even when you know the usage rules, you still have to know which marks are correct. I have seen all sorts of professional typesetting in books, posters, ads, and all kinds of other junk where no one ever thought to notice that a real apostrophe, or real quotation marks, were not being used. (Yes, it's hard being this anal-retentive, but my friends have learned to love me anyway.)

So I offer my own contribution to your pool of grammatical knowledge: Sparky's Typesetting School, Lesson One:

Apostrophe/Single Closing Quote
The one, the only. Note that the open end of the apostrophe faces left — always. If it does not, it's a single open quote (see below). In typefaces where the apostrophe does not have such a curlicue shape as the one shown, it will still be heavier at the top, taper toward the bottom, and lean toward the right.

Single Open Quote
The companion to the single closing quote. This is only used when there is a quotation within a quotation. Contrary to the results you may get when using the smart quotes feature in most software, this is not what is used when you refer to the '90s, or in other cases where an apostrophe follows a word space.

Used to denote measurement in feet, or time in minutes. These days, no one will care much if you use a neutral single quote for this (which has no slant, see below), but it is not actually correct.

Single Neutral Quote
Technically, this should only be used for programming code. It's not an apostrophe, it's not a prime, it's not a single quote. It was developed for typewriters. This is what you get when you use simple HTML or you don't use the smart quotes feature and you try to type an apostrophe. It's wrong. (I let this slide in HTML because it's a pain to key in the proper code all the time.)

Double Open Quote
Opens to the right, and should definitely be used instead of a double neutral quote (see below).

Double Closing Quote
Opens to the left, and should definitely be used instead of a double neutral quote or a double prime (see below).

Double Prime
Used to denote measurement in inches, or time in seconds. These days, no one will care much if you use a double neutral quote for this (which has no slant, see below), but it is not actually correct.

Double Neutral Quote
Technically, this should only be used for programming code. It's not a double open or close quote, it's not a double prime. This is what you get when you use simple HTML or you don't use the smart quotes feature and you try to type a double quote of either kind. It's wrong. (I let this slide in HTML because it's a pain to key in the proper code all the time.)

For more information, you may want to pick up the very excellent Words Into Type, your preferred style manual, or even the simple-but-classic The Mac Is Not a Typewriter (or you can use The PC Is Not a Typewriter so you learn the right keyboard shortcuts).

Future nits to pick: hyphens and dashes, the ellipsis, and punctuation and font changes.

Another Friday Night

When you live in a great big open room, it's very easy to feel very small and alone when you go to sleep at night wishing there were someone to curl around you, to shrink the space around you down to the places where you touch.

I realized a long time ago that sex is no substitute for affection. On its own, it's company without companionship, icing without cake. I don't have any problem with sex on its own, but the trick is being aware enough of my longings to avoid tracking down sex when I’m really craving something more. When I’m just horny, the problem is easy enough to resolve here in a big, indulgent city. When I’m lonely, though, the easy solutions are just counterproductive, leaving me feeling lonelier, pessimistic, and occasionally chafed. There are times when I have to really force myself to stay in and not find someone to scratch the itch, because it's not what I’m really after at that moment.

Finding someone with holes to be filled doesn't fill the hole I sometimes feel. sorry, not tonight — I have a heartache.

Porque soy el Ultra-Funk!

Since experiencing the magic of the Venezuelan Party People, Dave has been answering "why?" questions with "Porque soy el Ultra-Funk!" Apparently, colleagues' reactions are leading him to think this is only funny in his own head. I think his colleagues must be pretty humorless, because I get a kick out of it.

What a nice boy that Dave is. Not only did he send me some (totally not illegally copied, I swear) CDs and an issue of superman he had mentioned (in which The Big Boy scout battles a group that’s a thinly veiled critique of the Authority), but he also took the time to drop a note to my mom.

The Monkey on My Back

swanky New X-MenI blame Beau, although to be fair it all started out innocently enough. We were having lunch and we strayed onto the topic of comic books and how I love them but I fear them. I stopped collecting long ago (too expensive, too hard to keep up with), but they've remained a dangerous temptation — I’m a Friend of Stan L.

As we talked I was telling Beau how excited I was to see what Grant Morrison would do once he started writing for The X-Men, considering how much I went bananas for The Invisibles once I stumbled across them. Whatever. It was just a brief flare-up of nerdiness at the time, and I went back to work.

The Ass-Kicking AuthorityLater on in the week I saw that Beau had gotten the new issue, and I suddenly became obsessed with getting a copy for myself. I went to Forbidden Planet, but they were out of stock. I was crushed, but the fever was in me, and I was in a comic book store with a credit card burning a hole in my pocket, and all sorts of things that I had to have, like the new Authority and a kooky issue of Earth X because I’d been coveting it for so long, and I love those Alex Ross covers so much. There was no turning back.

The next day, I finally found the X-Men book I was looking for at a much bigger place near my office, and I was so elated that I also splurged on one of the Planetary and Invisibles books I’d been curious about. Great scores all around, which left with me hours of reading. I was pleased as punch, despite feeling a little bad about going on such a bender.

I know that some think it's really old-skool, but I’m a sucker for the whole superhero genre in comics. I know that comics are a great medium for telling all kinds of stories, but the superhero stuff still excites me in a very primal way. I’ve read them my whole life, making up characters and stories of my own and soaking in as much of the varied universes of superhero stories as I could. It's easy to look back now and see that I have a real soft spot for a lot of stuff from my youth that wasn't especially sophisticated, but it's also very exciting to see that a lot of comics have grown with me. A lot of them are still just slugfests, and I often get exasperated at how bloated some of the more popular mythologies have become. Luckily, there are books like The Authority and The Invisibles and Planetary that play with the myths that nurtured me: they challenge them, contradict them, turn them inside out, and even show affection for them. It's very po-mo now, very meta. And that’s good. There are a lot of people making comics who are up to the challenge of keeping the medium vital without losing the spark of wonder that sucked me in to begin with. Thank god for that.

Homo Schlock

A must for any proud queerI beg to differ. In fact, I’d say that a god-damned rainbow mirrorball is enough of a hypercaricature to be the sole indicator of someone so desperate to have an identity that he'd buy one lock, stock, and barrel from a catalogue of homosexual schlock. (It could be a she. I don't want to suggest that lesbians are immune to this sort of tragic kitsch.) Jesus, decades of fighting for public acceptance gets us this? Doesn't anyone see that this is as bad as a Catholic with a life-size velvet painting of the Pope?

You wanna show your pride? You wanna be out of the closet? Hold a guy's hand in public. Tell the fella in the mailroom he's got a hot ass. Ask if your boyfriend can be covered under your health insurance. Just be yourself — I bet you're not as truly straight-acting as you think you are. And that’s not a problem at all.

New Mediciney Goodness

I switched medicines today, sort of. since I’ve been doing so well on the three drugs I’ve been taking (AZT, 3TC, Ziagen), no gross side effects and impressive changes in my bloddwork and whatnot, I’ve switched from taking them as two pills (Combivir, Ziagen) twice a day to only one pill (Trizivir) twice a day. It's big and blue and looks prettier in my little pillbox than the others, and leaves more room for me to carry around extra Claritin for my pesky allergies.

Have I ever complained about how much I hate taking medicines? Not because I find them unpleasant in and of themselves, but because I hate being reliant on little nudges to my body chemistry rather than just relying on clean living and eating pretty well. Being totally dependent on prescription medicines every day for the rest of my life, particularly knowing that if I miss doses too often they can stop beng effective altogether, makes me slightly batty.

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