Symbols and Marks

Esperanto ■ English
Last updated: March 17, 2022

If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission.
―Eddie Colla


Go here for the condensed version.

Table of contents


This short guide gives you a tour on how to use the (-), ('), and (") symbols on your keyboard, that are better suited to perform symbol duties than their ill cousins from the typewriter era. In addition to those symbols, I’m also going to talk about replacements to frequently-used incorrect symbols.

Each section begins with an input sequence for Linux, Mac, and Windows systems, respectively. The + symbol signifies that you press the key to its left, before you press the key to its right. That is, to input + Shift + -, you must press and hold , then press and hold Shift, then press -.

Notes for Linux

There is already a method to easily insert symbols in Linux. It is with the use of the Compose key. Unfortunately, using this method is not economical. Instead, we use the Mode‎ߺ‎switch key. In this article the 🐧 key signifies the Mode‎ߺ‎switch key.

We must bind it in the correct configuration file. Open the file ~/.Xmodmap, then add the following snippet:

!! print key
keycode 107 = Mode‎ߺ‎switch

!! left windows key
keycode 133 = Mode‎ߺ‎switch

!! right windows key
keycode 134 = Mode‎ߺ‎switch

!! menu key
keycode 135 = Mode‎ߺ‎switch

!! symbols
keycode 48 = minus underscore endash emdash
keycode 49 = grave asciitilde leftsinglequotemark
keycode 24 = apostrophe quotedbl rightsinglequotemark
keycode 25 = comma less minutes seconds
keycode 26 = period greater ellipsis
keycode 20 = bracketleft braceleft leftdoublequotemark
keycode 21 = bracketright braceright rightdoublequotemark

Then, run the following command:

xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap

Hyphen (-)

The - key on your keyboard is not part of the dash family. It looks like one, but it isn’t one. Hyphens are used to join words, and to separate syllables of a single word. For example, to speak of a bird that eats snakes, we type:

To speak of a snake that eats birds, we say:

En dash (–)

The en dash is used to denote a range of values. Don’t put spaces around it. To express the date range from 1960 to 2016, we type:

Another use of an en dash is to express a contrast or connection between words:

When used with other forms of date ranges, the behavior changes, slightly. If the dates being expressed are of different months, use:

When the month is the same, used the unspaced en dash:

Em dash (—)

The em dash can be used in a multitude of ways. Like en dashes, don’t put spaces around it. To use it like a colon:

To use it like a reverse colon:

To use it like parentheses:

To denote interruption of the speaker:

Double quotes (“) (”)

Left double quotes (“)

Right double quotes (”)

Double quotes are used to denote words that were spoken by a speaker.

They are also used when writing quotes (attributions):

Another popular application of double quotes is when they’re used as scare quotes–used to indicate irony, and non-standard meanings:

Lastly, it is used to mention a part of a whole:

To make it easier to remember how they look like, think of them as floating pairs of sixes and nines:

Single quotes (‘) (’)

Left single quote (‘)

Right single quote (’)

Single quotes are used when a speech is embedded within another speech:

The right single quote is also used when denoting possessions, contractions, and abbreviations:

A common mistake made with single quotes is committed when denoting year ranges:

This is incorrect because it implies that “90” is an entity signifying ownership over something. There is no such thing as a 90. To fix it, the right single quote must be used before the year range:

This is correct because the right single quote signifies and substitutes “19.” It is also correct to write it as “1990s.” Next, is the presence of “s.” This creates an array; 90s here would mean: 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99—a series.

With that, another common mistake is to use the left single quote instead of the right one:

With this in mind, ’90s means the years 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999.

When expressing textual omissions and contractions, the correct character is the right single quote, not the left one. For example, let’s look at the contraction of “It is” in “It is the season.”

This also applies to the word “and” contracted to a single letter:

What the quotes substitute are the letters “a” and “d,” respectively.

Use both the left and right single quotes, however, when there are no contractions involved and that something is treated specially:

Here, ‘A’ is the name of a specific train or it denotes a special meaning.

Prime symbols (′) (″)

Prime (′)

Double prime (″)

The quotation symbols on your keyboard (') and (") look like prime symbols but they aren’t. They’re sloppy vestiges from typewriters. The correct glyphs are (′) and (″). The prime symbol (′) is used to denote feet, minutes, and arcminutes, while the double prime symbol (″) is used to denote inches, seconds, and arcseconds.

To express a height of six feet and two inches, we type:

The express five degrees, four arcminutes, and three arcseconds, we type:

The double prime symbol can also be used as the ditto mark. The ditto mark is used to indicate that words above it are to be repeated. For example:


Horizontal ellipsis (…)

The ellipsis is used to indicate omission of a word, phrase, sentence, or a whole block of text, as part of a larger text. It is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks. I see a lot of times that three periods—full stops—are used instead of the proper ellipsis symbol. In an era where typewriters were the best ways to typeset text, using three periods worked. That time, however, has long passed; we should use the facities available with us.

For example, it can be used like this:

When used as the start of a sentence, it introduces emotions and drama:

When used at the end of a block, put a space before it; when used at the start, put a space after it; when used in the middle, put spaces around it.

Closing remarks

Using the correct punctuation marks and symbols draws the line between class and crass. When you use the proper symbols, you communicate to your readers that you care about syntactical correctness as much as content value.

Thanks to Ram Martinez for the corrections.