Type Considerations Multiply

Recently, during a lecture I delivered to a group of professional writers, I commented that, in addition to choosing a well-designed font, professional-looking typography is the sum of all the little details in type treatment. As an example, I mentioned using prime marks instead of quotation marks to indicate feet and inches and using a real multiplication sign instead of an x.

The puzzled looks and the multiple muddled voices murmuring “An x isn’t a multiplication sign?” told me that a lot of people don’t know the differences between these characters.

The photo (below) on the left shows how many people type multiplication signs and inch measurements, with an x and with quotation marks. The photo (below) on the right shows a real multiplication sign and double-prime marks indicating the inches.

Side by side 8 by 10 photos

The photo on the left uses an x and quotation marks. The photo on the right uses a multiplication sign and double-prime marks.

Notice that the real multiplication sign does not have serifs, sits above the baseline, and each of the arms and legs are congruent. To type a real multiplication sign in Windows applications, press Alt-0215. In HTML, type ×. Macintosh users, unfortunately, will need to select the multiplication sign from an application’s Character Palette or Glyphs Palette.

Notice that the double-prime marks don’t curl like quotation marks (sometimes called “Smart Quotes” or “typographers quotes”). Typing double-prime marks for inches is easy. In Windows applications, press Alt-Shift-″. Macintosh users, press Control-Shift-″. In HTML, type ″ (note capital P).

Typing prime marks for feet is just as easy. In Windows applications, press Alt-′. Macintosh users, press Control-′. In HTML, type ′ (note lowercase p).

And now you have something new to talk about at the next cocktail party.

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  • Jamie  On 24 March 2011 at 9:07 am

    Glad to see a new post.

    Just a quick question: What impact does using actual prime and multiplication marks have for documentation? If a group of professional writers, including myself, was unaware of these differences, does it really matter? I don’t know enough about the effects this can have on presentation.

    I am happy to see you found a use for that picture!

    • Michael O.  On 24 March 2011 at 12:55 pm

      I’m glad you liked the picture. I used that one for the benefit of my STC Summit friends. I should give Tony Chung a photo credit there.

      The question of “does it really matter?” is a good one. By no means am I advocating a purist approach to typography. I like to focus on the practical implications of typography as well as the aesthetics. Writers and editors face questions of relevance often. If no one knows the difference between who and whom, does it really matter? If no one knows what the subjunctive mood is, should I even bother? The answer, I think, is a resounding “sometimes.”

      I think, in most cases, your readers will understand that 1024 x 768 (with an x) means 1024 × 768 (with a multiplication sign). I would admonish you, however, to be careful when writing highly specialized texts in mathematics, science, and engineering fields, because the difference between an x (variable) and × (multiplication sign) could be the difference between life and death. You should always use the correct characters (or whom or the subjunctive mood) when it affects meaning.

      Outside of mathematics, science, and engineering, I would urge you also to use the correct characters, because they make your writing look more professional and add to your credibility, even if they are only noticed on a subconscious level. I think I’ll touch on this more in my next post.

      Thanks for the question. It’s a good one, and one that each of us struggles with everyday. I dare you to sit up front and heckle me in Sacramento!

      • Jamie  On 24 March 2011 at 6:26 pm

        Thanks for your reply. I will definitely have to take this into consideration in the future, but I don’t think I will be revisiting any x marks in my documents at this point in time.

        Why would I want to heckle you? Of course I will be on the front row, but I’ll try to behave. I just have to remember that one day I hope to be presenting.

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