Feature: Myth of the Smart Typist

By Prof Dr Mohamed Yusoff Ismail (yusoff_ismail@oum.edu.my)

Typing classes are now as extinct as dodo birds. In the good old days, a certificate in typing was most desirable in getting a job. Many people went to typing schools and practised very hard on those massive Remington, Adler or Olivetti machines. Students were not only tested for speed and accuracy, typing schools were also sticklers when it came to the conventional rules of typing. Students were required to master the techniques of keyboarding with each finger assigned to specific characters so that their hands did not crisscross each other when hitting the keys at speed.

A typist would have to be meticulous too, because one just could not afford to make too many mistakes. One or two "typos" were quite alright although you had to make the corrections manually. If there were too many of them, the typist had to retype the entire page, a tedious and time-consuming task, no doubt.

With the advent of computers, typing schools died a natural death. Today, we are expected to learn how to type on our own, with no one around to teach us even the most rudimentary rules of keyboarding.

Hence, it is common to see all sorts of self-styled documents that violate the conventional rules of typing. Typical of these is the appearance of punctuation marks and spaces in all the wrong places. Many people tend to ignore the simple rules either out of sheer ignorance or because they have never received proper coaching.

One of the rules is to never put a space where it should not be. A space is technically a separator for words or for alphanumeric characters. If the space happens to be in the "hot" zone at the end of a line, it can also function as a line breaker (we seldom use hyphens nowadays).

For instance, if you type a monetary value such as "RM240.00" with a space immediately after "RM", the Arabic numerals (240.00) following it may be shifted down to the beginning of a new line, leaving the "RM" sign hanging by itself right at the end of the previous line. Even if such a phrase is not in the hot zone, there would be a big gap between the ringgit symbol and the numbers when the text is justified.

This phenomenon is called a "widow" because the "wife" (i.e., the numerals) is now "divorced" from the "husband" (i.e., the "RM" sign). When this happens, how do you read the value? Imagine how awkward it would be if you have to read the two in one single breath when the "wife" and "husband" are not sitting together on the same line! It would be even worse if "RM" appears at the end of one page while the numerals continue at the beginning of the next page.

In banking practices, a space between the ringgit sign and the numerals may spell trouble because someone may insert another number or two in the space, thereby altering the cardinal value by the tens or thousands. Therefore, to be on the safe side, remember this simple rule: a space between a "husband" and the "wife" simply means that you are giving opportunities for another person to squeeze in and take advantage of the estranged relationship. The rule of thumb is, "Do not put a space in between two things that should not be separated from one another."

Another worrying trend nowadays is the habit of using spaces instead of commas to indicate thousand, hundred thousand or million. For instance, the self-styled typist may often write "one million" like this: "1 000 000", instead of "1,000,000." (Note the two commas after every third digit from the right).

Writing like this may look very fashionable but it violates the fundamental rules in mathematics; worse still if the last cluster of zeroes on the right happens to be at the end of the line. The trio may be shifted down to the beginning of a new line. The "million" is now broken into two non-cohesive clusters of numbers, a catastrophe caused merely by trying to be too trendy.

Had you used commas in between the zeroes, the numerals in the "million" will stick together as a single entity. If it needs to be shifted to the beginning of a new line, all seven digits plus the commas will move down en bloc. They will not be broken up nor will they be hyphenated.

Another rule is to never put extra spaces between words. Some people have itchy fingers. They simply like to press the space bar just for fun. Running the spell checker on a word processor will highlight this violation; the spell checker will change the font colour of badly-spaced words or underscore them with jagged lines.

If your fingers are itchy for extra spaces, nothing disastrous will happen to your document or file, but the particular line where the "crime" has been committed will appear to have uneven spacing between words. It will not look professional enough for an A-grade essay, will it?

Another unfortunate thing is that we have ignored, rather unknowingly, the rule for spacing after a full stop at the end of a sentence. The rule is, "There should be at least two spaces after a full stop at the end of a sentence before you begin with a new one."

Most people will find this quite trivial. Nevertheless, this rule is not without basis. In the old days of traditional printing, extra spaces after a full stop at the end of a sentence provided edges for the typesetter to manoeuvre with alphanumeric characters so that the text line will come out nicely with well-spaced words in between.

I guess you may wonder if this rule is still relevant today. Bear in mind that the two-space rule after a full stop has some hidden blessings. One is that the paragraph will look less cramped because the extra space provides an "eye break" and makes reading less stressful. Imagine yourself writing a thesis; would you want to torture your examiner with page after page of cramped paragraphs that have no "eye breaks" at all? Just as long paragraphs are broken up into shorter ones, well-spaced sentences will help for less stressful reading.

Another formatting disaster is when a punctuation mark like the comma, full stop, question mark, opening and closing bracket suddenly appear at the beginning of a new line when it rightfully belongs to the previous line.

This phenomenon is called an "orphan." It happens when you insert a space just before the punctuation mark. As mentioned above, a space is both a word separator and a line breaker. Hence, if you put a space just before the question mark in a sentence (e.g. "What is this ?"), chances are that the question mark will become an "orphan" if you are in the critical zone at the end of a line. If there is no space between "this" and "?", the question mark will never become an orphan. The two will stick together regardless of where they are pushed to.

If you have too many "widows" and "orphans" in your text, you will not create a good impression to the individual who is evaluating your work. So be nice and humane to those who have the power to decide your grades.

Many people do not bother with proper keyboarding techniques. As long as they get the document to look somewhat right, it is fine with them. For this reason, they do not make full use of the text formatting features on their computer.

For example, many people still use tabs and carriage return (ENTER key) to format their bibliography in a way that is reminiscent of bygone eras of the manual typewriter. Because of this, the right-hand side of the document can never be justified.

Starting a new page in a document is another interesting chore. Many people choose to repeatedly press the ENTER key until a new page appears on the screen. The real problem starts when you add more text on previous pages and the first line of the text on the new page shifts farther down, making it necessary for you to delete some of the carriage returns to bring the first line back to the top of the page. This is an unwise (read: ignorant) way of doing things even though the printed page still looks like what you want. Actually, all you need to do to generate a new page is to invoke the "INSERT" menu and choose the "Break" and "Page Break" options.

Many people do not even know the format of their document. Most of the time, they format on a default letter-size paper, yet print them on A4-size paper. This is when you get a lot of white spaces at the bottom margin of the document while the margin on the right-hand side gets squeezed in by at least 0.5%. (For your information, letter-size is shorter but wider than A4-size paper). To make things worse, letter-size paper is rarely available in Malaysia. It is widely used only in America.

Today, despite the fact that typewriters have become extinct, the rules remain as important. Some examples of good formatting that comply with conventional standards can still be seen in letters and documents prepared by senior generations of secretaries of some established ministries. Most of them have gone through rigorous training on the traditional typewriter keyboard. Will their style ever be emulated by their younger successors? I am not sure, but I certainly hope that there will be smart typists to carry on the proper traditions.

* Prof Dr Mohamed Yusoff Ismail is a consultant anthropologist with OUM's Faculty of Applied Social Sciences.


Interpreting a Full Stop

  • A full stop preceded and followed by any numeric symbol without any space in between is technically a decimal point.
  • In e-mail addresses, we use full stops without any space before or after each word. Putting a space before or after the dot will invalidate the address.
  • A full stop is also used for distinguishing values, e.g., the ringgit versus the sen. Try putting a wide space before or after the full stop the next time you write a cheque; the bank officer will give you a weird look. In banking practices, remember not to put a gap between numbers, otherwise other people may insert something in the blank space.
  • A full stop after a capital letter followed by a single space is meant for abbreviation of a person's name, like A. B. Dunlop.

Some Typing Tips

  • After every punctuation mark, insert a space except for a full stop at the end of a sentence. In this case you need to insert two spaces before you begin a new sentence in the same paragraph.
  • For a full stop that is used as part of a person's abbreviation, only one space is needed (e.g. J. W. W. Birch). If there is no space, the full stop is not part of the abbreviation, but a decimal point!
  • Never insert a space before any punctuation mark such as full stop, comma, colon, semi- colon or question mark. (You may have problems with an "orphan" laIn the case of parentheses or brackets, do not insert any space after the opening bracket and also before the closing bracket. However, you need to insert a space before the opening bracket and also after the closing bracket.
  • Do not insert extra spaces between words. A word processor like Microsoft Word will issue a protest note by underscoring the text with a green line when you run the spell checker.
  • Never put a space between anything that you do not want separated. For instance, "RM50,000" should not be written as "RM 50 000" (with a space between "RM" and the numerals). Remember to insert a comma, instead of a space, to separate the thousand.

Full Stops with Inverted Commas

Where do you put a full stop when the sentence ends with words in inverted commas or quotation marks? The answer is, "The full stop is placed within the quotation marks."

Consider the following examples:

The title was an allusion to a phrase in Goethe's "Earl-King."

A full stop after a capital letter followed by a single space is meant for abbreviation of a person?s name, like A. B. Dunlop.

Note where the full stop is placed. Although "Earl King" is in inverted commas, the full stop is not placed outside these inverted commas, but enclosed within them.

He said, "One example can be found in Whitman's 'Song of Myself.'

The above is a classic case of inverted commas within inverted commas. Note the cluster of inverted commas at the end of the sentence and where the full stop is placed. (The two examples above were taken from William F. Imscher (1972), The Holt Guide to English: A Contemporary Handbook of Rhetoric, Language, and Literature. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, p. 510).

Full Stops with Other Marks

If a sentence ends with a question mark or an exclamation mark, do not put a full stop after these marks.

If a sentence ends with a word that is already abbreviated, e.g. "Osman Brothers Sdn. Bhd.", the full stop after the last abbreviated word already serves as the end of that sentence:

To do the job they have hired Osman Brothers Sdn. Bhd.

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