5 InDesign Typing Rules

When editing designers’ source files in InDesign, I also noticed a few common typing errors that should be avoided.

1. Use hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes properly.

A hyphen divides a compound word, such as “post-Colonial.”

An em dash indicates a break in thought—what was I talking about? (Unfortunately, my blogging tool shortens em dashes, so you’ll just have to imagine a longer dash.) An em dash is also used to indicate an open end date, such as “Peter Baxter-McGill [1964—]” or an open-end date, such as “19—.” There’s no reason to create a dash using two hyphens (–) in InDesign.

An en dash is used to indicate a range of numbers, such as “35–44.” It also indicates a link between geographic references and routes, such as the Mason–Dixon Line and Oakland–San Francisco. It’s also used for joint authors, such as “Kvern–Blatner” and for the minus sign. (Unfortunately, it looks like my blogging tool converts en dashes into hyphens. Oh well.)

Some people prefer using the en dash – instead of the em dash – in the middle of a sentence because it looks better than the em dash. If you take this approach, make sure you add a nonbreaking space (Type > Insert White Space > Nonbreaking Space) before the en dash so that the dash doesn’t start a line.

2. Use discretionary hyphens to break words.

If you don’t like the way InDesign composes text and decide to break up a word with a hyphen, use a discretionary hyphen (Type > Insert Special Character > Hyphens and Dashes > Discretionary Hyphen). A discretionary hyphen is also known as a “soft hyphen” or “optional hyphen.” It’s visible only if it breaks the word at the end of a line. If you just add a hyphen, you may end up with “Spam- alot” in the middle of a line.

3. Use quotation marks and prime marks correctly.

Use straight quotation marks (" ") when you’re typing code. The rest of the time use curly quotation marks. In InDesign, you can change a preference setting to determine which quotation marks are used. You can read more about it in the Use quotation marks Help topic.

Use the prime mark (′) to indicate feet, arcminutes, or minutes of time. It looks like a slanted apostrophe. Use the double prime mark (″) to indicate inches, arcseconds, or seconds of time. Some fonts include the prime and double prime marks. Use the Glyphs panel to insert these marks. If the font doesn’t have a prime or double prime mark, insert the straight quotation mark, and italicize it.

4. Use Space After and Space Before instead of paragraph returns.

Novice InDesign users control paragraph spacing using the Enter key. This frequently causes problems, especially with blank lines at the top of a frame. The better approach is to control paragraph spacing with paragraph styles. The Space Before and Space After settings are found in the Indents and Spacing section. You can also use the Control panel to change Space Before and Space After values of individual paragraphs.

5. Watch for widows and orphans.

A widow is the last line of a paragraph that winds up all by itself at the top of a column or page. An orphan is the first line of a paragraph that lands all by itself at the bottom of a column or page. Designers sometimes also refer to the single-word last line of a paragraph as either a widow or an orphan. Some people call this a “runt.”

InDesign offers several methods to avoid widows and orphans. See the Ways to control paragraph breaks and Control paragraph breaks using Keep options Help topics.

Did I miss anything?

16 Responses to 5 InDesign Typing Rules

  1. sidney davenport says:

    Thank you so much! After all this time (25 years?)I still did not know about prime marks. I always used straight quotation marks for feet and inches.

  2. Peter Kahrel says:

    >Did I miss anything?Hanging indents: use left indent and negative first-line indent. Don’t use return followed by spaces.

    • grdesign says:

      that is a great method if you style a paragraph, but if you need a quick solution, specially when you have a paragraph that starts with a 1- or A- is to use the line-up function.

      —> ⌘ + |
      —> (command) + (the vertical line, above the return button — not the L key)

      that works great !

  3. Mev Wilson says:

    Very useful. I am considered a style queen… not always in the nicest tone either.However, here’s my dilemma: Indesign breaks my type in the weirdest places. For example, the text says 1 p.m. and Indd breaks the line after 1, even though there is plenty of room for p.m. on the line! I added a nonbreaking space between 1 and p, and voila! the p.m. fits on the line. But doing that by hand is a pain. Why is this doing this????

  4. Rosie says:

    Would someone please answer Mev W.?!!! I’d like to know too!!

  5. Darrel Eppler says:

    Probably because you are using the Paragraph Composer, which adjusts line breaks to make the spacing in the paragraph as even as possible. Try switching to the Single-Line Composer to verify this behavior. Then use whichever Composer produces the desired results.

  6. Cat says:

    I am trying to get InDesign to find all the soft hyphens before a line break. I know the answer must be in font of me, but I can’t see the forest for the trees (or whatever).AFAIk InDesign sees here as a whole word, but I need to find those hypens at the end of the line.thank you

  7. Adam says:

    Regarding soft hyphens and page breaks… if you are simply trying to make sure words are not hyphenated across columns or pages, the is a setting in paragraph styles to turn this off.

  8. carin says:

    How about widows and orpans when you have a list? each line on the list is a ‘new’ paragraph and thus the ‘keep’ option doesn’t work. So you can end up with the first or last line of the list all by its lonesome.
    list one
    etc but now this last comment is at the bottom of the page and oops it ends up on the next page all by itself…
    if it is a long list I don’t necessarily want the whole thing to be forced to stay on one page, it is ok if it breaks, just not at the first or last line.

  9. Christine says:

    How about the keyboard shortcuts? Using a mac keyboard, I believe they are:

    En dash – Alt and hyphen

    Em dash – Shift, alt and hyphen

  10. talofo says:

    thanks a lot for this post. I was getting crazy why my .pdf files created from inDesign don’t allow me to properly copy paste code snippets. Thankfully your post was here. 🙂 Cheers.

  11. grdesign says:

    i’ve been raised on quark and since my transition to indesign been trying to figure out how to do a soft hyphen. so thanks!

    now to clarify :
    _first you MUST allow hyphenation on your paragraph, right?
    (really don’t like that)
    _then you can add the soft hyphen, but i am noticing it is longer than a normal hyphen, and rather looks like an en-dash. so i end up adding a manual dash with a soft return.
    anybody can answer this problem?

  12. Johnny says:

    Is there a shortcut for Space After and Space Before?

    • Madhavan says:

      Use the below keys and enter the required above and below spaces.


      If there is any other solutions please advice.

  13. Amos says:

    Can someone please help, when typing and every time I hit a return key my cursor disappears.
    What should I do?

  14. Rutchie says:

    I’m using the latest Adobe InDesign, is there a way to set in the paragraph style or a tool to take away widows and orphans?