Hanging punctuation is used to maintain the formatting of text blocks and other stylistic text, placing certain punctuation marks in the margins of the text to maintain the text's look. Hanging punctuation may be a difficult concept to envision at first, but with examples it quickly becomes clear.
Hanging punctuation is a type of text formatting that is used to preserve the look of text in certain situations. When punctuation marks such as quotation marks would offset the beginning of a line that is part of a selection of specially-formatted text, hanging punctuation can be used to maintain the appearance of the text. Such a use is referred to as "hanging" punctuation because it is placed outside of the formatted text; though it requires the line it appears on to be offset into the block's margin by one character, the text itself appears to remain intact because the first letter is in the same position it would be in if the quotation marks weren't present.
Examples of Hanging Punctuation
Hanging punctuation is most often used when text blocks are included in documents. These text blocks are commonly used to quote portions of books or documents within a page, providing a visual cue that the text in question isn't part of the page's standard text but instead comes from a different source. Text blocks can consist of as little as a few lines to multiple paragraphs, and feature indented margins on both sides to create the "block" appearance. When hanging punctuation is used in a text block, the quotation marks that begin a line are placed one character to the left of the block to maintain the look of the text block itself.
Other examples of hanging punctuation include text that is stylistically formatted as sometimes occurs in poetry and design. The text is laid out to create a specific shape, and the use of quotation marks can offset this text in an undesirable manner. Hanging punctuation can be used to maintain the overall look of the formatted text. This can be especially important when commonly-recognized shapes such as pyramids or diamonds are being created, as the hanging text prevents the illusion of a "flat" portion of what would otherwise be a sloping line.
Of course, quotation marks aren't the only type of punctuation that can be left hanging for purposes of text formatting. Hyphens are often left hanging in the right margin to preserve text formatting. Periods, commas, and similar punctuation marks can be placed in the right margin as well to prevent an ending word from being carried to the next line of the block, especially in cases where justified text isn't being used.
Programs that Use Hanging Punctuation Automatically
Because hanging punctuation isn't used as commonly as some other typographical styles, not all word processors and desktop publishing programs include support for it. Without hanging punctuation support, text blocks have to be formatted manually to allow for the offset of quotation marks and other punctuation. This can be particularly frustrating when using a typeface that allows for differences in letter width, as it can be difficult to correctly align the starting letter of the line with other lines in the formatted text.
Fortunately, some desktop publishing software does allow for the automatic creation of hanging punctuation in formatted text blocks. Popular programs such as Adobe InDesign and Corel Ventura automatically hang punctuation when it is needed to ensure proper text formatting, and other programs such as PdfTeX allow for semi-automatic hanging punctuation when specific typographical modes are enabled as well.