Prime time

Prime time

When I first saw print ads featuring a prime when they meant to use an apostrophe, I considered it the sign of another amateur who got his first computer. When a similar gaffe appeared in a Time Magazine ad—the ad must have cost $30,000—I could imagine how my parents felt when we kids all began growing our hair long like the Beatles. The world was coming to an end.

I blame the typewriter.

I have a love/hate relationship with typewriters. I still have a classic Underwood on my desk, just because it is such an inspiring mechanical marvel. Modern computers fail to amaze us anymore because we don’t see the magic happening inside. We just take it all for granted. With a typewriter, you can watch every lever and hinge connect finger to page like so much sinew and muscle. It is a miracle of design.

I forgive a typewriter for not having proper punctuation.

There’s only so much room on a typewriter keyboard, and every extra key requires more levers and hinges and angles to strike. There is a lot of double-duty going on. A single prime*,, used to denote a foot of measure, was asked to also substitute for an open quote  ‘  mark. And a close quote mark  ’ while you’re at it. Same for the double-prime  ”  originally used as shorthand for inches or minutes.

That’s not the least of the compromises. Look for yourself: many manual typewriters don’t even have a numeral  1 . Typists were taught to substitute a lowercase  l  (el) instead. (Depending on what font you’re seeing now, those two may look the same!)

Nevertheless, it was a huge improvement over some people’s handwriting. Typing was undeniably faster, and nobody used typewriter text in a $30,000 Time Magazine ad. For that, we’d hire a real typesetter who used real quotation marks. (And real ellipses.)

The problem arose after a whole generation of people were raised using manual typewriters. Then came word processors, and soon after that, computers—all based on the simplified keyboard.

We type compromised characters even though today’s computer fonts contain every correct symbol imaginable. It just takes some nutty, arcane fingerwork to get there. Most people no longer know there is a difference. With all that computer power creating professional quality print, every amateur became a “graphic artist.”

Today, most word processors make the correction for you, judging by context. They turn your single prime into an apostrophe, your double-prime into open and close “curly quotes.”

Great, right?

Almost. Except now I’m seeing this:

[ forehead slap ]

Now that’s a prime example. Get it?


*Actually, it’s even worse than that. True primes and double-primes lean a bit to the right. They were straightened specifically for the manual typewriter so they could be used on both sides of a word. Ironically, the straight  ”  and  ‘  don’t seem to have existed before the manual typewriter, and thus in the world of typography aren’t correct for anything.

Dot… dot… dot…

Dot… dot… dot…

So I was thinking… how fast can I introduce improper use of the ellipsis?

Not bad, eh? Just three words in.

Strictly speaking, the ellipse is used to when something is missing or unfinished. Like when I quote “Four score and seven years ago…” and don’t finish the rest of the quote. While many people use it to convey a pause in thought (as in the first line above), that is better done with a long  M-dash. Like:

“So I was thinking—”
“About what?”
“About the ellipse.”

The ellipse is often used to denote a reflective pause, when the writer wants to appear thoughtful… as if dreaming… of another world… where everyone hugs…

Yeah, just don’t do that.

In print, I don’t care if you use dot-dot-dot. People will fuss, but the bottom line with print has always been that if it looks good, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

eBooks and other digital documents present a unique challenge. eBooks don’t have a locked-down font size. Or font. Or page size, for that matter. With the tap of a button, the reader can change your carefully-chosen Minion Pro 10-point-over-15 typesetting and change it to 12-point Helvetica. Boom—the whole book recomposes itself. A word at the end of a line now finds itself in the middle of the next line. Web pages do the same thing: stretch the window, and the text inside it reflows to fill the new space.

That’s not a problem unless you have a habit of using dot-dot-dot for your ellipse. It’s possible that the first two dots will reach the end of a line in an eBook but without room for the third dot, which will wrap to the next line. Like this:

Or when they want to appear thoughtful..
. as if dreaming… of another world…

Yikes. Not good. So while all your snobby typesetting friends argue about how best to present an ellipse, you now have a practical reason to use the proper ellipse character in digital documents.

It usually looks the best anyway. Dot-dot-dot worked on a typewriter because the period had enough space on either side. Today’s word-processors have skinny little periods that nuzzle far too close together:

Many word-processors now will make the substitution automatically. You type dot-dot-dot, you get a real ellipse. To make the example above, I had to go through three different software programs to find one that wouldn’t auto-correct my example. Sheesh.

Now here is where I shall attract the wrath of snobby typesetters everywhere. [helmet on, chinstrap secure] Leave a space after your ellipse character in digital drafts. Some display devices consider the ellipse a regular character, and thus two words joined by an ellipse become one really long word. That’s a problem when your paragraph is eventually justified (flush to both left and right margins). Devices add a little extra space to word spaces to push a line to the right margin. If there aren’t many spaces (because of long words) the effect is magnified. When it reaches its limits, the device may even start ripping the words themselves apart to reach the margin, like this:

A space after your ellipse allows that long word combination to break cleanly if it needs to.

Some typesetters hate how that looks… a space after an ellipse. I don’t mind it at all, and I’m as fussy as they come. Many style guides even require the space, so you’ll be in good, snobby company.