Hanging Out with Punctuation

If you couldn’t guess from today’s headline, it is time to bring the house down with another Typographic Minutiae post. (Please note that the preceding sentence works best if you make that “Raise the roof” gesture while you read it. I can wait if you want to go back and try it again.)

If you’ve ever felt that your punctuation was out of place but weren’t sure why, it probably has something to do with hanging punctuation (or possibly a low-grade psychosis). Basically, it goes like this: When you’re aligning text the way civilized people align text (flush left, ragged right), punctuation should “hang” in the margin or gutter to allow the actual letterforms to align.

I’ve demonstrated what I’m talking about with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, here:

The example on the left (heretofore “the so-so example”) has some things going for it. It’s set in Minion Pro, which we love, and it’s flush left, ragged right, which, as I mentioned above, is how civilized people set type. However, it does not employ hanging punctuation.

In the example on the right (“the typographically awesome example”), you’ll see how the opening quotation mark “hangs” to the left of the line created by the left-justified type. This is one of those tiny things that you may not think about often, or possibly ever (and if that’s the case, I envy you; please take me to that place), but it can be the difference between so-so type and truly professional type.

And this doesn’t just go for punctuation at the beginning of sentences. Again with Douglas Adams:

Notice in the example on the right that not only does the punctuation hang out in the margin, but so does a tiny bit of the capital T. What’s happening here is that the example on the left is a mathematical alignment (the exact left edges of the typographic characters are aligned), while the example on the right creates an optical alignment (the left edge is created by aligning the strongest visual element of each character). To your viewer, the version on the right creates a stronger line and is therefore more visually pleasing.

Some typographers even apply this to bullet points. I couldn’t find a Douglas Adams quote with bullet points, so I just wrote whatever came into my head:

I actually do not hang bullet points because they hang so far into the gutter, they can interfere with the preceding column of text.

In a rare bit of actual technical information on this site, here’s how you make your text hang in Adobe InDesign: Click on the text box in question, then select “Type” and “Story.” (It’s not intuitive, I know.) This will give you the pop-up window pictured here. Click the “Optical Margin Alignment” box. You can adjust the degree of hanging with the numeric value.

I have to admit, this post is design-nerdy even by my standards. Check back next week, when I promise I’ll have jokes about sweater vests and some photos of funny signs.