As an editor, I frequently see the same recurring errors of typography. In this post, I want to focus on the three most common, having to do with dashes, quotation marks, and title formatting. I have often wondered—not without a dash (so to speak) of exasperation—why writers have so much trouble with these three issues. After many years of deep meditation on this, it hit me: I suspect the reason (other than the lack of formal training in such matters) has to do with differences in style guides: American publishers and English publishers typically use different style guides, newspapers use style guides different from those of most book and magazine publishers, and, to add to the confusion, the internet has become a style guide free-for-all.
No wonder writers get these things wrong (to be clear, I use “wrong” from the perspective of an uptight American grammatical prescriptivist—which perspective, let’s be clear, is part of why people hire me as their editor). Most writers aren’t thinking too deeply about typography, especially as it pertains to punctuation. So they choose from the available grab bags of styles, based on what they often see (online and in print), without much concern for the intended market of their own writing. But if you’re looking to get published, I do think this stuff is worth getting right.
Let’s start with dashes, a glorious topic I’ve discussed here and here (apparently there’s no end to dash discourse!). The most common use of dashes is to indicate syntactical breaks or interruptions. In American English (AmE), we typically use an un-spaced em-dash (—) for this purpose. The book on my desk today is Richard Hofstadter’s (sadly) timeless Anti-intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962):
Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations—he was after bigger game—but intellectuals were in the line of fire . . . (3)
In British English (BrE), rather than un-spaced em-dashes, we’d see spaced en-dashes ( – ):
Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations – he was after bigger game – but intellectuals were in the line of fire . . .
Again, to be clear, the em-dashes in the first example are not surrounded by spaces, but the en-dashes in the second example are. If you’re writing in AmE (as are most of my clients), stick with em-dashes, and don’t put spaces around them. (There are tricks for finding em-dashes on your keyboard, but an easy option is to google “em-dash,” and copy and paste.)
By the way, AmE does employ en-dashes, most commonly to indicate a range of something (e.g. 2016–2020) or tension or movement between two things (e.g. Chicago–New York).
Quotation marks also cause problems, again because of the AmE–BrE divide (if you’re playing along, note the en-dash here). For the first occurrence of quotation marks in a text—for example, the opening of a quotation—AmE calls for double quotation marks, while BrE calls for single marks (the Brits call them “inverted commas”). Both AmE and BrE use the same alternating nesting rules—that is, in AmE, single marks would be nested in double marks, and in BrE, double marks would be nested in single marks. And the marks would alternate again for further nesting (for a great example, see Barth’s “Menelaiad”[EK1] ). Let’s see, here’s something else from Anti-intellectualism in American Life (Hofstadter is quoting educator Jerome Bruner):
“Virtually all of the evidence of the last two decades on the nature of learning and transfer has indicated that . . . it is indeed a fact that massive general transfer can be achieved by appropriate learning, even to the degree that learning properly under optimum conditions leads one to ‘learn how to learn.’ ” (350)
In BrE, we’d have (I’ll jump to the end):
‘. . . learning properly under optimum conditions leads one to “learn how to learn”.’
Beyond the outer double marks in AmE and the outer single marks in BrE, there are a couple of additional important points to make here:
(1) Note the play of punctuation at the end of the quotation—in the first example, both the final single quotation mark (which closes the phrase ‘learn how to learn’ [sic]) and the final double quotation mark (which closes Hofstadter’s quotation of Bruner) fall outside the period, while in the second example, the final double mark arrives before the period (frankly, the BrE seems to make more sense here, since the double mark is closing the phrase “learn how to learn,” not the whole sentence, but, alas: in AmE, keep your commas and periods inside closing quotation marks; don’t leave them out with the cat and the milk).
(2) Most good publishers include a space between single and double marks, as you see in the first example (’ ”).
I want to give you one more example, this time dialogue in fiction. In recognition of the title of this post, here’s a little Dick:
“The android flees,” Resch said humorlessly, “where the bounty hunter pursues. You realize, don’t you, that you’re going to have to double back to the opera house and get Luba Luft before anyone here has a chance to warn her as to how this came out. Warn it, I should say. Do you think of them as ‘it’?” —Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ballantine Books, 1968), 125.
Note the placement of the commas around “Resch said humorlessly.” Also note the end of the quotation (where punctuation errors often occur). Since the question mark is part of the dialogue, it comes before the final double quotation mark.
I must add one additional important point, because I see it all the time: assuming we’re adhering to the rules of AmE (which is always my default assumption when I edit), you should never ever use single quotation marks if those marks are not nested in double marks. Just don’t do it. (The only time I see un-nested single quotation marks (in AmE) is in newspaper or journal titles, when the title itself contains a title (here’s an example).) That I still get raised eyebrows (virtually speaking) from many writers on this topic is mystifying. It’s like, I don’t know, questioning the legitimacy of a recent American election, or the relative safety of vaccines, etc.
Writers seem to muck up titles not because of national differences in style guides, but because of differences across mediums. In books and most literary periodicals, “big titles” should be in italics, including the titles of books, periodicals, movies, television shows (although less consistently for some reason), and music albums; visual art is also usually put in italics. “Little titles” should be put in quotation marks (double marks in AmE, single in BrE), including book chapters, magazine articles, short stories, television episodes, songs, and (non–book-length) poems.
The problem, I think, is that newspapers rarely use italics. I’m not sure why this is—stubborn are the stodgy bearers of news—but for those who regularly read newspapers, it can definitely get confu— I interrupt myself to ask: Does anyone read newspapers anymore? Have we fallen that far into this abyss of ignorance and mental lethargy? Do we all get our news from our Facebook feeds, etc.? If so, well, then, my friends, with however much time we have left (probably not much), there’s no excuse for getting your titles wrong. Unless of course the unimaginable is true: that social media doesn’t easily facilitate the use of italics; I’d rather not even entertain this possibility.
Here’s a quotation from Anti-intellectualism in American Life:
Few of the true believers [religious fundamentalists], after all, then attended college, and those who did could still seek out the backwater schools that had been kept pure from the infections of The Origin of Species. (126)
A newspaper would likely put Darwin’s book in quotation marks:
. . . the infections of “The Origin of Species.”
And social media is wide open. Maybe:
. . . the infections of The Origin of Species.
There are a few ways to really learn this stuff (besides, of course, reading my amazing posts). You can purchase a book on grammar and usage. I’m surprised how many writers don’t have a ready guide at hand. I recommend Garner’s Modern English Usage (that’s my primary source), but there are many others, all I assume adequate. Another option is to use the internet. I’ve been generally pleased with what I find there when I have a question about grammar/usage. (I suppose we should be grateful that the internet is an accurate source of information in at least one field.) Finally, you can probably use a book or two already on your shelf as sources of emulation. I recommend nonfiction, especially books filled with quotations. Try to identify passages that exemplify the above—quotations in quotations, punctuation at the ends of quotations, ample use of em-dashes—and keep the books handy on your desk. Just make sure the publishers are of high stature and American (or British if you’re writing in British English).
Perhaps someday we’ll have a universal style guide. Until then, write angry, y’all, and be safe. Thanks for reading, and good luck.
Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.