Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You Learn Something New: Em-Dashes

I was incommunicado for a couple of days, without any computer access at all. I think I will recover fully, but it was touch-and-go last night. Please accept this complicated topic as reparations.

In response to a comment on my recent anti-semicolon post, I researched the difference between using an en-dash (a short dash that looks like a hyphen but is not a hyphen) rather than an em-dash (a long dash often represented by a double-hyphen). I came across a discussion about various type styles and dashes. The posts were written five years ago, but the discussion gives some good history.

I then found a surprising page about the en-dash versus em-dashes in singles, pairs, and trios. Each version has an appropriate set of uses and a special character. I had no idea!

I use en-dashes (hyphen-length) for em-dashes (double-hyphens that many word processors replace with a special character. I have done that for years because I think—as do several folks in the first discussion—that the double-hyphen construction is unattractive.

The special character (as seen in the previous sentence) does not appear magically on bulletin boards and fora. To avoid the ugly version, I began using the [space]hyphen[space] construction that you can see in other posts on this blog. MS Word automatically replaces that with an em-dash with a space on either side.

The problem is that the special character does not translate into a noticeably different-length dash in most HTML editors like the one for this blog. I never thought to review their appearance as posted rather than in the editor. The way I use en-dashes gets the point across but is technically incorrect. I am trying to break my bad habit, and thanks to Carradee for the “heads up”.

Does anyone else have a bad habit to explore, my oversight or yours?




You're welcome. :-)

Some side notes:

1. An em is the length of the height of a line of type and an en is half that.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style says an em-dash shouldn't have spaces around it, while the AP Stylebook does.

3. An em-dash can be substituted with two hyphens in a row (--), and an en-dash's substitute is one hyphen.

I thought you might find the above interesting.



In practice, the en-dash and the hyphen are identical. When was the last time anyone stopped to insert a special character for an en-dash in their word processor? But it's good to know the difference, just in case. ;)