Devil Mountain Views Home Page
Newsletter of the East Bay Chapter of STC
January/February 2004

Ask Elaine: The Little Things


Elaine Parrish
by Elaine Parrish
DMV Copyeditor


If you have an editing question you’d like to see addressed in a future column, please submit it to Ask Elaine.


An earworm has been running through my head lately. Years ago, I participated in a college musical production that included the following lyrics:

“It’s the little things,
tiny incidental things,
that need caring the most.”

Ignore the awkward grammar; the message is valuable. Little things mean a lot. With our hectic schedules, it’s easy to pour all of our energy into the content that we are trying to communicate, and skip little niceties that could distinguish our message in the reader’s mind from the dozens of others that bombard them.

To technical communicators, conveying the content—the what—to the reader is the primary goal. But our method of communicating—the how—can be almost as important as the what, because it can make or break the reader’s positive reception of the message. Two classic typographical conventions often neglected in a deadline crunch—dashes and curly quotes—can add (to quote the Cowardly Lion), “that soitain air of savoir-faire” to your text. These “tiny incidental things,” when used, might not necessarily impress your readers, but if they’re overlooked, your readers may very well get a nagging suspicion that they can’t quite pin down, that there is something not quite up to par with what they’re reading.

Curly quotes and apostrophes

Curly quotes and apostrophes differ from the plain old straight-up-and-down variety like a fine Merlot differs from a jug red. There’s nothing wrong with jug red, but you’ll probably choose the Merlot if you want to impress your dinner guests. In the same way, the elegant curvature of curly quotes and apostrophes, also called “typeset” or “smart” quotes, adds a touch of class to your text.


Nothing seems to subtly whisper “amateur” in the reader’s ear more than the use of hyphens when dashes are called for. Just because the hyphen has a place of honor on the keyboard doesn’t mean it should be used in situations where a traditional typesetter would break out the special dash characters. Two types of dashes have specific uses where hyphens just won’t do. Use the shorter of the two, the en dash, to separate a range of numbers, or in a compound word in which one of the elements is more than one word. Use the longer dash, the em dash, to separate elements of a sentence in a more emphatic way than with parentheses or other punctuation marks.


The table below illustrates these little typographical tricks, including how to create them.



Use instead of

Usage and Examples

ANSI code (use number pad)

MS Word shortcut (use number pad)

HTML code

Curly apostrophe



In contractions and possessives:

The Tin Man’s chest was empty because he didn’t have a heart.

Alt 0146

(see note below)


Curly quotes



In quotes and certain types of emphasis:

“Oil can what?” asked the Scarecrow.

The two-year-old liked to “help” his parents cook dinner.

Alt 0147 and Alt 0148

(see note below)

“ and ”

Em dash



To separate elements in a sentence:

Dashes—not hyphens—should be used in this example.

Alt 0151

Ctrl + Alt + minus


En dash



In a range of numbers:

2–4 hours

Alt 0150

Ctrl + minus



Note: To set the options in MS Word to automatically create curly quotes and apostrophes, from the Tools menu, choose AutoCorrect Options and check the boxes to replace straight quotes with smart quotes. Uncheck these boxes when you deliberately want to type a straight apostrophe or quote to indicate feet and inches.

The ANSI codes in the table above are only four in the large collection of special codes adopted by the American National Standards Institute organization. To learn more, go to this helpful site on ANSI character sets.Top of page



DMV Home | EBSTC | STC | Contact Us

How I Became a Technical Writer | Strategies for Making Change Work | Seasonal Poem
Style Guides | Style Never Goes Out of Style | Ask Elaine | Leaders Needed | Literacy Project | Member Survey