Symbols and Marks

April 8, 2016
Updated: April 7, 2017

“If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission.”
―Eddie Colla

Click here for the condensed version.

This short guide gives you a tour on how to use the hidden symbols on your keyboard, that are better suited to perform symbol duties than their ill cousins from the typewriter era—the (-), (') and (") symbols. In addition to those symbols, I’m also going to talk about replacements to frequently-used incorrect symbols.

Each section begins with an input sequence for Windows, Mac, and Linux (X) systems, respectively. The + symbol signifies that you press the key to its left, before you press the key to its right. That is, to input + + -, you must press and hold , then press and hold , then press -. For the Linux input sequences, the keys should be pressed and released. That is, to input Compose - - -, you must press and release Compose, press and release -, press and release another -, and press and release the last -. Also for Linux, the Compose (Multi_key) must first be set in your .Xmodmap file, or in your Desktop Environment (DE) configuration.

Table of contents

Hyphens (-)

The - key on your keyboard is not part of the dash family. It looks like one, but it isn’t one. Hyphens are used to join words, and to separate syllables of a single word. For example, to speak of a bird that eats snakes, we type:

To speak of a snake that eats birds, we say:

En dashes (–)

The en dash is used to denote a range of values. Don’t put spaces around it. To express the date range from 1960 to 2016, we type:

Another use of an en dash is to express a contrast or connection between words:

When used with other forms of date ranges, the behavior changes, slightly. If the dates being expressed are of different months, use:

When the month is the same, used the unspaced en dash:

Em dashes (—)

The em dash can be used in a multitude of ways. Like em dashes, don’t put spaces around it. To use it like a colon:

To use it like a reverse colon:

To use it like parentheses:

To denote interruption of the speaker:

Double quotes (“) (”)

Left double quotes (“)

Right double quotes (”)

Double quotes are used to denote words that were spoken by a speaker.

It is also used when writing quotes (attributions):

Another popular application of double quotes is when they’re used as scare quotes–used to indicate irony, and non-standard meanings:

Lastly, it is used to mention a part of a whole:

To make it easier to remember how they look like, think of them as floating pairs of sixes and nines:

Single quotes (‘) (’)

Left single quote (‘)

Right single quote (’)

Single quotes are used when a speech is embedded within another speech:

The right single quote is also used when denoting possessions, contractions, and abbreviations:

A common mistake made with single quotes is committed when denoting year ranges:

This is incorrect because it implies that “90” is an entity signifying ownership over something. There is no such thing as a 90. To fix it, the right single quote must be used before the year range:

This is correct because the right single quote signifies and substitutes “19.” It is also correct to write it as “1990s.” Next, is the presence of “s.” This creates an array; 90s here would mean: 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99—a series.

With this in mind, ’90s means the years 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999.

Prime symbols (′) (″)

Prime (′)

Double prime (″)

The quotation symbols on your keyboard (') and (") look like prime symbols but they aren’t—they’re sloppy vestiges from typewriters. The correct glyphs are (′) and (″). The prime symbol (′) is used to denote feet, minutes, and arcminutes, while the double prime symbol (″) is used to denote inches, seconds, and arcseconds. To express a height of six feet and two inches, we type:

The express five degrees, four arcminutes, and three arcseconds, we type:

The double prime symbol can also be used as the ditto mark. The ditto mark is used to indicate that words above it are to be repeated. For example:


Horizontal ellipsis (…)

The ellipsis is used to indicate omission of a word, phrase, sentence, or a whole block of text, as part of a larger text. It is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks is the ellipsis. I see a lot of times that three periods—full stops—are used instead of the proper ellipsis symbol. In an era where typewriters were the best ways to typeset text, using three periods worked. That time, however, has long passed; we should use the facities available with us.

For example, it can be used like this:

When used as the start of a sentence, it introduces emotions and drama:

When used at the end of a block, put a space before it; when used at the start, put a space after it; when used in the middle, put spaces around it.

Closing remarks

Using the correct punctuation marks and symbols draws the line between class and crass. When you use the proper symbols, you communicate to your readers that you care about syntactical correctness as much as content value.