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Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Legacy of the typewriter

Forty years ago not many offices had computers. They were too big and too expensive. Those that did certainly didn't use them for day-to-day writing tasks. The cost couldn't be justified. In those days the most commonly used writing tool, apart from pens and pencils, was the typewriter.

Today we writers are spoilt with so many fonts, so many sizes and weights and styles to choose from when we want to create emphasis. Most typewriters in those days had one style, one size, no bold, no italic. Also the letters were designed to be one fixed width, ie the lower-case i was the same width as the capital W.

Typists were, however, quite inventive in the use of their single font to create different degrees of emphasis in, say, a heading. For a major heading it could be typed all in capitals and underlined. A less-major heading might have capitals without underlining. A lower-level heading perhaps had initial letters capitalised. Sometimes when a typist thought a heading might be particularly important they might add an exclamation mark. Such skills were taught to typists at typing schools.

On the other hand, publishers had their publications typeset on machines such as Linotype and Monotype. Such machines could set type in many different sizes and styles. One particular font might have bold, extra bold, normal, light, condensed, expanded and of course italic. Without changing the basic font, the publisher had many ways to create emphasis.

When the typesetter received the copy to be set it had been created on a typewriter and he might have a challenge to decide which of the typist's styles he should follow and when he should use his typographic training and substitute something perhaps more appropriate. If he made a decision that did not suit the customer the setting might have to be done again at no charge.

To alleviate this problem, publishers and advertising agencies employed editors and typographers to mark up the copy with clear instructions so that the typesetters knew what was required.

I was such a person. I gained my typographic knowledge first from my superiors and also from studying Publication Typography and other related courses at Ultimo Technical College, School of Graphic Arts in Sydney. I was committed to understanding the craft and read every book on the subject that I could lay my hands on from the college and other trade libraries.

I and my colleagues spent much time going through the copy putting vertical lines through each of the capital letters we wanted to be set as lower case.

Why did we go to so much trouble? Because the purpose of print is to communicate. Our job was to create the best communication possible.

One of the maxims which guided my decisions was: 'Anything that doesn't add to the communication probably detracts from it.' Therefore if I was in doubt about whether to follow the typist's style or change it, I would ask myself, 'Is the communication improved by this?' If it wasn't, I removed it.

In a heading do we need to put all the initial letters in capitals? To decide, ask 'What does this practice communicate?' If it is intended to communicate 'Hey, this is a heading.', doesn't the fact that we've put it a few sizes larger than the text and in bold do that? I feel that overemphasising something can be condescending to the reader. We're saying, 'Pay attention stupid! This is a heading.' I trust my readers are intelligent enough to have already figured that out. How about yours?

Sometimes those trained in the Typist School of Typography go even a step further. They add an exclamation mark/point to a really important heading. The purposes for an exclamation mark are to indicate something that is shouted or exclaimed; to indicate an intensity of emotion or loudness; or to express a speaker's dumfounded astonishment (refer dictionary.com). Overuse of exclamation marks is a sign of a writer's lack of ability to communicate.

Following the maxim I quoted above, I have my own personal campaign to remove all unnecessary punctuation. Regular readers of this blog might have noticed, for example, that I write 'eg' without punctuation. Do you understand what it means? I'm sure that if you know that 'e.g.' means 'for example' then you won't be confused by my 'eg'. If I think a reader of average intelligence might be confused I'll add the punctuation. You'll notice I do a few little things like this. Perhaps I'm being a little innovative but I don't believe I'm the first person to do so. I'm not aware of any dictionaries that acknowledge this spelling but no doubt they'll catch up in due course.

On the other hand, words such as Mr, Dr, Ms etc have been spelt without full stops/points for many years. I remember my eighth grade teacher pointing this out almost fifty years ago. He said it wasn't an abbreviation but an alternate spelling and quoted the Oxford Dictionary to support him. This practice is common in both England and USA. Check dictionary.com once again. It shows that there are some American dictionaries that still use the full stop/point but the more progressive ones have dropped it. Likewise, the more progressive ones also accept that tertiary qualifications such as PhD, MBA etc may be spelled without full points. Eventually, I suspect, everyone will be doing it this way. If you want to be the last to change, feel free.

So, am I alone in this or is what I am advocating standard for respected publishers? I made a list of ten English-language news publications without knowing where they stand. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to see how many agree with me. The publications are Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Bangkok Post, The Nation (Bangkok), New York Times, Los Angles Times, Washington Times, London Times, The Economist and New Statesman.

Eight of these ten publications, like me, do not capitalise initial letters in headings. Seven of these publications do not use full stops for Mr, Dr, Ms etc. Two of the other three seem to avoid the issue. They simply use the person's name without a title. I'm sure they have a ruling in their style manuals but I suspect their style manuals encourage journalists to avoid use of such titles altogether. Therefore, only one out of ten is regularly adding full stops to these short titles. I did not find one publication that used an exclamation mark in a heading.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons


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