Making “doing it right” easy

If you’re like most people, you don’t think too much about how you type quotes, dashes, or ellipses. As people have done since the days when most text was in ASCII—or before that, the days of typewriters—you type the same character for left and right quotes, three dots for an ellipsis, and (bless your heart) two little dashes--like this--when you want to insert a pause. These substitutions were a good form of economy back when keyboards and character sets were limited, but today, almost all text is in UTF-8 and supports ideal quotes, dashes, and other marks.

If you’re typing in a word processing application, it might automatically improve your punctuation, turning double-hyphens into em-dashes, straight quotes into “smart” ones, and the triple-period into a proper ellipsis. But most web-based text editors haven’t caught up, and as more typing moves to the web, we are more often left with the old approximations.

If you want to up your punctuation game, the secret is to learn the keyboard shortcuts for the ideal marks. On a Mac:

  • To type proper quotes, “like this,” use option-[ for a left double quote and shift-option-[ for a right double quote.
  • For single quotes, ‘like this,’ use option-] and shift-option-]. You can also use shift-option-] for an apostrophe.
  • For dashes, only use the short dash on your keyboard for a hyphen. For ranges, such as 3–5 or Nov 1–Dec 31, use an en-dash, which you can get by typing option-hyphen. For a long dash in a sentence that indicates a pause—like this—use an em-dash by typing shift-option-hyphen. (Alternatively, use an en-dash surrounded by spaces – like this. Wikipedia has a decent guide to dashes.)
  • For an ellipsis … like this … simply type option-;. (Make sure you’re using a proportional font, though.)

This won’t slow you down once you automatize it. I learned how to do proper dashes a long time ago, and now it’s second nature; I don’t even think about it. The keys are in muscle-memory; I had to look at my fingers in order to consciously remember the proper combinations. I’m training myself on the others now.

Why bother? For my part, I’m doing it to sharpen my typography sensibilities, as part of heightening my overall design sense.

There’s a deeper point here: You need to practice doing things right so that when you’re doing actual work, doing them right is easy. If you haven’t practiced, then doing things right will be prohibitively difficult. It’s not worth slowing down just to get one punctuation mark perfect. To make it worthwhile, you need to make it fast. That’s why you need to learn the keyboard shortcuts rather than inserting the marks through a special UI, and why you need to practice them until they’re automatized.

The same goes for other aspects of design. The tech community has learned to value design much more in the last several years, but most engineers still turn out ugly apps when left to their own devices. Why? Because when you haven’t learned how to make a proper gradient button in Photoshop, how to use a CSS grid system, or how to create a rational site navigation structure, doing so slows you down too much.

The same goes for other technical skills. As a software engineer, if you already know how to write efficient SQL queries, use a JavaScript framework for client-side MVC, or write a good automated test suite—you’ll do it. If you haven’t learned those things when you start a new project, you won’t have time to learn them, and you’ll compromise. (Sometimes that’s even the right choice.)

If you want to do something right, practice the skill until doing it right is easy.

Thanks to Carolina de Bartolo for giving the talk on typography that got me thinking about this, and to Designers + Geeks for hosting her recently.

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