I blame computers

I have long been a Superintendent in the Apostrophe Police, and am now thinking we need a new department

For a few years I had a client who published a magazine for healthcare professionals. One of my roles was to typset the advertising. It was in this capacity that I first became aware that when you write short pieces of text in limited space, it is very important for the sense of the thing to put your line breaks in the right places. A phrase make more sense if it is all on the same line. I never did find out whether there are formal rules for this, but I think I could, at least, see when something didn’t seem to make sense.

I’m not sure what the link is with Covid. Perhaps it’s just the obvious one – people who haven’t had a lot of experience, hurriedly creating window posters. Whatever caused it, I have definitely seen, during the pandemic, several examples of window posters that didn’t seem to make any sense at first sight. If I’d known I was going to get a bit obsessed with this, I would have photographed more examples, but here are just a couple that are still on display within a quarter of a mile of where I live.

Strictly NoThe “Strictly No” one does, at least, look as if it is temporary and was put together quickly (note the badly applied piece of selloptape at bottom left).

The second one is sadder. The person who made this clearly wanted to do a good job. They have laminated it. It is even sadder as the top two lines read like the name of an organisation, followed by its strap line. I don’t think that’s quite what the designer had in mind.

Anyway, moving away slightly from my own sad obsession, the point I want to make is that both of these examples look as if the creator has just whacked out some text, bigged up the font, and slapped in some artwork. There are several ways that they could have adjusted the type so that the lines made more sense. Here are just a few:

  • Hit the “enter” key where appropriate to force the following text to start on a new line
  • Increase/decrease the font size
  • Adjust the document’s margins so as to give more or less room for the text
  • Change the wording so that the line breaks came in more appropriate places

Please SociallyAll of the above suggestions assume that the posters were put together with a word processor. If you’re using a desktop publishing package, you can also mess about with the kerning (the spacing between characters).

If you are the kind of person who doesn’t notice the difference between “practice” and “practise”, or “licence” and “license”, then you probably haven’t got a clue what I’m rabbiting on about. I suspect, though, that there’s still a fair number of people who, like me, wince at such crimes against language.

And why do I blame computers? Because they make it too easy to let the technology do all the work (ie deciding where the line breaks will appear). It’s not necessary to engage the brain to see if what you are writing actually makes any sense to the reader – so sometimes it doesn’t.