Sunday, October 12, 2014

Design notes: essential high punctuation ( – — ‘ ’ “ ” )

Many amateur type designers are unaware that the punctuation marks that fontforge shows by default in the ASCII block (or the Latin Supplement block right after it) are not the only punctuation characters in common use. High punctuation marks—characters like the dashes ( – — ) and curly apostrophes and quotes ( ‘ ’ “ ” )—live in another Unicode block (glyph encoding scheme) called General Punctuation, buried beneath a myriad of Vietnamese glyphs and Polytonic Greek letters.

General Punctuation encodes about a hundred assorted punctuation characters that couldn’t be fit into the original ASCII block. Most of them are whitespace characters (we’ll get to those) and obscure glyphs like ‘※’. About a third of them however are commonly used in professional typesetting—including but not limited to the aforementioned dashes and apostrophes, the primes ( ′ ″ ), the ellipsis ( … ), the asterism ( ⁂ ), the daggers ( † ‡ ), and the permille sign ( ‰ ). Any decent font should eventually include these characters (though the primes and asterism are often overlooked), but the essential members are the dashes and curly apostrophes.

To jump to the General Punctuation block, you have to change your font’s encoding to Unicode ( EncodingReencodeISO 10646-1 (Unicode, BMP) ) and go to ViewGoTo and select General Punctuation from the dropdown menu on the dialog (or just scroll down until you see punctuation marks). Once you touch the slots you want to create, you can reencode your font back into the regular Latin-1 encoding and fontforge will remember the extra glyphs and include them at the end of your glyph table.


Dashes ( – — ) should not be confused with hyphens. They have a different grammatical meaning, even if they are often misused. Dashes come in two lengths—a short dash called a nut or en dash, used for ranges (120–145 miles), conflicts (Iran–Iraq war), scores (54–7), and occasionally as an abbreviation for the word “to” (the New York–Albany train)—and a long dash often simply called a dash or more specifically, an em dash. The em dash is a pause mark that has a meaning somewhere between a semicolon, comma, and colon. Many people who don’t know how to type these characters—or are using a font that doesn’t contain them—replace the en dash with a hyphen (-) and the em dash with two consecutive hyphens (--). Which is wrong. Others simply don’t use dashes, which is just silly. Look in any professionally typeset publication and you will find an abundance of dashes.
The em dash is almost one em long. The en dash is about half as long, and the hyphen about a quarter as long.
The em dash is almost one em long. The en dash is about half as long, and the hyphen about a quarter as long.
Dashes are almost always perfect rectangles, with no beveling or other calligraphic traits. Historically, the em dash got its name because it was supposed to be one em long (the width of a letter ‘M’, in the old days). The en dash was half as long (the width of a letter ‘N’ back then). Of course, just as the ‘M’ and ‘N’ are no longer bound by such strict proportions, neither are the dashes. Em and en dashes in most fonts are about ten percent shorter than a perfect em square and 1:2 em rectangle, respectively. In Floribunda, the en dash is 0.42 ems (420 font units) long, and the em dash is 0.9 ems long. Dashes sit at the same height as the hyphen does, but are often somewhat thinner. Thinner dashes tend to look more elegant.

In many fonts, the dashes are set with zero sidebearings, to make it easier to construct horizontal rules (lines) out of them. Which is generally bad typesetting practice, but it can also be useful for typesetting the vincula in horizontal fractions and stuff. This, however, doesn’t look very good when the dashes are used for their intended purpose. So some fonts pad them with sidebearings. Personally, I believe in padding my dashes, and then kerning them together when they occur next to each other, as they would when used to create rules and vincula.

Curly quotes and apostrophes

These characters are slightly more common, if only because most word processors insert them automatically.
Curly quotes and apostrophes are usually variants of the comma glyph. They tend to be a bit smaller and less extreme in shape, however. The left curly apostrophe is the same as the right curly apostrophe, only rotated 180 degrees, so that the head faces downwards. The curly quotes are constructed from the curly apostrophes the exact same way that the straight quote is constructed from the straight apostrophe.