Symbols and Marks
“If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission.”
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
- Windows: -
- Mac: -
- Linux: -
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:
- A snake-eating bird.
To speak of a snake that eats birds, we say:
- A snake eating bird.
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 5 0
- Mac: ⌥ + -
- Linux: Compose - - space
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:
- Mother–daughter relationship
- San Juan–San Fernando leg
When used with other forms of date ranges, the behavior changes, slightly. If the dates being expressed are of different months, use:
- She walked January 1 – February 15, 1800
When the month is the same, used the unspaced en dash:
- March 14–15, 1900
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 5 1
- Mac: ⌥ + ⇧ + -
- Linux: Compose - - -
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:
- Two men are dead: Juan and Pedro.
- Two men are dead—Juan and Pedro.
To use it like a reverse colon:
- These are its qualities: soft, slimy, and spiky.
- Soft, slimy, and spiky—these are its qualities.
To use it like parentheses:
- Two men (Juan and Pedro) are dead.
- Two men—Juan and Pedro—are dead.
To denote interruption of the speaker:
- “I think I will go and—hell, no.”
Left double quotes (“)
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 4 7
- Mac: ⌥ + [
- Linux: Compose 6 "
Right double quotes (”)
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 4 8
- Mac: ⌥ + ⇧ + [
- Linux: Compose 9 "
Double quotes are used to denote words that were spoken by a speaker.
- She came up to me and said, “Can we determine its probability?”
It is also used when writing quotes (attributions):
- “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”―Samuel Clemens
Another popular application of double quotes is when they’re used as scare quotes–used to indicate irony, and non-standard meanings:
- The “secure” disk can be read directly.
Lastly, it is used to mention a part of a whole:
- “Return of the Jedi” is a film in the Star Wars saga, filled with cute teddy bears.
To make it easier to remember how they look like, think of them as floating pairs of sixes and nines:
- ⁶⁶Quoted Text⁹⁹
Left single quote (‘)
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 4 5
- Mac: ⌥ + ]
- Linux: Compose 6 '
Right single quote (’)
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 4 6
- Mac: ⌥ + ⇧ + ]
- Linux: Compose 9 '
Single quotes are used when a speech is embedded within another speech:
- He muttered to himself, “I thought he said ‘It is not doable’ when we talked yesterday.”
The right single quote is also used when denoting possessions, contractions, and abbreviations:
- These are Juan’s scalpels.
- Dance like ’tis ’60.
A common mistake made with single quotes is committed when denoting year ranges:
- Wrong: 90’s music.
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:
- Correct: ’90s music.
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.
- Windows: Alt + 8 2 4 2
- Mac: ⌥ + 2 0 3 2
- Linux: Compose * . '
Double prime (″)
- Windows: Alt + 8 2 4 3
- Mac: ⌥ + 2 0 3 3
- Linux: Compose * . "
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:
- Red herons, cranes, and mantises.
- Pink ″ ″ ″ ″
- Windows: Alt + 0 1 3 3
- Mac: ⌥ + ;
- Linux: Compose . . .
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:
- Then, she told herself …
When used as the start of a sentence, it introduces emotions and drama:
- … My love, where art thou?
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.
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.