14 May 2008

Dash It All!

More grumbly bits for PUNCTUATION WEEK! English language typography once had a full quiver of dashes in different lengths. These were useful when eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers wished to keep their references anonymous: “In the small village of P——————,” for example.

For journalists, that approach conferred plausible deniability: “You think ‘the corrupt G————— B—————’ refers to ‘Governor Bernard’? No, I’d never thought of that. I was writing about my, um, cousin, George, um, Barleycorn. Now there’s a corrupt fellow.”

Gradually those dashes boiled down to three main types:

hyphen -
en dash

em dash

The last two got their names because they're the width of the font's lowercase n and capital M, respectively. (There are still standard uses for two-em and three-em dashes, but they're specialized. Also, according to some standards the en dash should be half the width of the em dash, whatever the font's n looks like.)

Then, about a century ago, came the Great Typewriter Squeeze. As I mentioned yesterday, typewriters offered a limited number of symbols, and required them to all be the same width. Those machines made no distinction between hyphen and en dash, so people basically forgot it (not that many people probably knew it to begin with).

Since a lowercase n and a capital M were the same width, typewriters didn't offer an em dash at all. That punctuation mark is so useful, however, that typists came up with ways to approximate it. The most common were--a double hyphen -- a double hyphen with a space on each side - and a single hyphen with space on each side. Millions of people learned one of those forms in typing class.

Now, with laser and inkjet printers setting type in proportional fonts, we can go back to using em dashes as they were meant to be used--but people are still typing double hyphens. And not just in fonts like this one, designed to replicate the typewriter look.

I still see double hyphens used in proportionally spaced fonts. As a result, dashes--which can be a most elegant form of punctuation--don’t get to spread out as they should. And the result looks unlike a book, and unprofessional.

Of course, in their never-ending quest to make life easier for us, whether we want it or not, many word-processing programs will now automatically convert double-hyphens to em dashes. People still struggle over whether to put spaces before or after those punctuation marks. The standard answer, according to American and traditional British typesetting style, is that there should be no spaces around an em dash.

However, some confusion can easily arise because modern British typesetting style is different. As part of what I've called “The Great British Punctuation Shortage”, many modern British books use an en dash with a space on either side where in America we use an em dash with no spaces. That opens the door to using spaces around en dashes or em dashes if it looks good on a document--as long as one sticks with that style symmetrically and consistently.

And for the cherry atop this sticky sundae of confusion, I'll note that the proofreading symbol that means “insert an em dash here” looks like one wishes to shove in an algebraic value, “one over M.” Check out EEI Communications' proofreading page to see it in action.

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