Please dress up the Em dash

The unspaced naked Em dash—or em rule—is quite ugly! (Just take a look at it sprawling over the end of that sentence!) The good news is that since about 1960, simple but elegant alternatives for this archaic typographical rule (most common in USA) have come into existence, promoting much-needed Lebensraum for the Em dash’s squashed and downtrodden neighbouring words. The special needs and influence of the Internet have speeded up wider adoption of the two simple improvements visible on our screens and often in print — the use of spaces with Em dashes, and in UK and elsewhere, spaces with En dashes – or ‘en rules’.

As far as I can gather after a short bout of research and selective reading, the following appears to be a very potted history of the punctuational problem. In the English-speaking world, prior to about 1960, the Em dash (em rule)—with NO spaces between it and the juxtaposed words—was the alternative typographical sign in books, newspapers and magazines. It was used, sparingly, to give special emphasis to interruptions and explanatory or emotional additions to a sentence or clause when a comma (or commas), parentheses (…) or a colon were not considered emphatic or dramatic enough. In general literature and newspapers, the special effect of the Em dash was used sparingly; in more serious tomes and especially in academic literature, it was, and remains, comparatively rare.

Then, in the 1960s, the innovative British publishing company, Penguin, which had begun to publish low-priced paperbacks in 1935, began to use an alternative form for drawing special attention to such sentence additions: an En dash (or two) with a space on either side – like this. Other British paperback publishers like Pan, Panther and Fontana followed suit some time afterwards and eventually many British publishers of hardback novels and non-fiction adopted this effective – and aesthetic – habit. Oxford University Press, for example is a notable user of the naked Em dash, whereas HarperCollins and the venerable (180-year-old) Spectator magazine clothe their Em dashes with spaces. British newspapers use either Em dashes or En dashes.

Meanwhile, in USA, the unaesthetic—unbuffered—Em dash has continued to rule the printers’ roost, at least until recently. Some American newspapers and magazines, like the New York Times, in print and online, now use the Em dash with spaces — giving a more pleasant result, as I hope many readers (and publishers) will agree. The majority of US publishing houses (as well as TIME Magazine, Vanity Fair, Prospect and Style manuals) continue to restrict the use of the En dash (unspaced) to series, spans and sets (5–7, 1900–1960, etc.), as is the practice in UK and other countries. (There is in fact a US mnemonic or mantra: “dash joins; Emdash divides.”)

What seems to have gone more or less unnoticed by many English language commentators is that in the publishing world, the use of En and Em dashes (with or without spaces) as alternative commas, colons and parentheses, has increased since computers and Internet word processors, with their available extra symbols and keyboard shortcuts, ousted the centenarian typewriter – with its limited number of fixed keys. Concern for the visual appearance of what we read on the computer screen must also be considered a factor in the rise in popularity of these highly visible contemporary punctuation marks. These factors (and the rapid decline in print and electronic media usage of colons, parentheses, and commas) could explain why many print and online magazines and newpapers have now adopted the spaced varieties of dashes. In book publishing, American fiction and non-fiction clings conservatively to the ancient unspaced Em dash. (Australian book publishers are divided between Em and En but the major newpapers favour En or Em dashes with spaces. Goodon’em!)

Another aspect of these typographical trends is that in many print and screen publications, the frequency of use of En and Em dashes (spaced or unspaced) has increased far beyond what was once considered ‘appropriate’ by stylistic arbiters. A superficial study of the use of spaced or unspaced dashes in the print and online media suggests that this visual aid may appeal to some writers and sub-editors as an extra way of emphasising, or even ‘spinning’ elements of a story. Have any MA or PhD theses been written on this?

Be that as it may, given these examples of a practical preference for adding spaces on either side of dashes – there is even a keystroke shortcut for ‘En dash plus spaces’ in Microsoft WORD – is it not time for more compilers of English Style manuals and other advisory and pedagogical materials to recommend the use of such spaces with either Em dashes or, in UK, En or Em dashes? That would accelerate the demise of the “Em gash”.

References:

1. J. E. Nesfield, Manual of English Grammar and Composition, London, Macmillan, 1916, p. 124. [1st edn, 1898.17th printing. A bestseller!]

“The Dash has five main uses:—

(a) To mark a break or abrupt turn in a sentence:—
Here lies the great—false marble where?
Nothing but sordid dust lies here.
(b) To mark words in opposition or in explanation:—
They plucked the seated hills with all their loads—
rocks, waters, woods—and by the shaggy tops …
[Paradise Lost]
c) To insert a parenthesis. Here two dashes are required:
At the age of ten—such is the power of genius—he could read Greek with facility.
d) to resume a scattered subject
e) to indicate a hesitating or faltering speech …

2. In Modern Australian Usage (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1993), Nicholas Hudson makes some interesting remarks on the development of dashes (pp. 103 and 342).

3. Some current online and print examples:

TIME Magazine [Em dash, without spaces]

“… and no cell phone coverage—for “security reasons”—the locals claim.”
“… child laborers—some appearing no older than 6—lug piles of rocks … .”
“Clutching an envelope containing $287—the equivalent of her monthly pension—Liang tearfully said that …

The New York Times [Em dash with spaces. The Em dash looks smaller on the screen]
“Some terrorism experts find the argument silly — and dangerous.”
“the average profits of the nation’s corporations — from behemoths like Goodyear to small neighborhood retailers — have declined”

The Wall Street Journal [The online version uses the two hyphens combination which dates back to typewriter days]

“… the demand for diesel — the lifeblood fuel of the world economy — continues to rise …”
“(Try a Wimpy burger — if only for the name.)”

The Times [En dash with spaces]

“… rumours abound of kidnap squads – a Russian gang has been mentioned – being recruited…”

The Economist [Em dash without spaces. An impression of more sparing use of dashes.]

“… and farmers in the delta—the country’s main rice-growing region—are already planting their next crop.”
“… a broader feeling that Labour—traditionally a party of the urban working class—has ignored the countryside.”

The Age, Melbourne, Australia [Em dash, with spaces]

“The most likely explanation — and obviously what the Government thinks — is that the leak came from a disaffected public service source.” (political commentator)

(The Herald Sun, Melbourne) [Em dash, without spaces]

“I can’t say I’m happy—my husband’s dead—but at least these murderers are getting what they deserve.”

The Australian newspaper, owned, like The Times, The Sunday Times and many US papers, including The Wall Street Journal, by Rupert Murdoch gives an excellent example: Em dashes plus spaces.

4. For an idea of the technical complexities facing professional typesetters, desktop publishers and editors, see the forum for ‘typophiles’, who deal with arcane matters like kerning and leading, etc., which have become slightly less arcane since desktop publishing appeared). Worth skimming is this thread: http://typophile.com/node/27727 . Note the eminently practical (but perhaps daring) contribution by Stephen Coles:

“An em dash — is simply a long dash. If it’s too long for you, use an en dash or horizontally scale it (yes, it’s okay to scale a rectangle).”

[I think those are typographers’ ‘hair spaces’. They are a welcome improvement.]

“Contrary to the P22 primer, the europeans generally use spaces (sometimes thin spaces) on either side of dashes, and I prefer it. No space creates visual tension for me. Many fonts need the room to breathe. As Nick said, all of this depends on the font, as some dashes are longer than others and some have sidebearings with space, some do not.

The only hard and fast rule is that you must remain consistent in your use throughout a piece or brand.”

The following long thread shows how technical things can get and will confuse or exhaust non-experts like myself: http://typophile.com/node/27742. Nevertheless, Nick Shinn emerges as my hero here (but I am not so keen on Patty’s conservatism).

“Patty, I recommend “space – en dash – space” for practical reasons, because as I said, emdash treatment varies so widely with typeface. For instance, this Futura em dash is really nasty, with no sidebearings and a long way from the vertical centre of the x-height. This is the kind of situation where “following the rules” will cause a typographer to do stuff which looks clumsy.” (Nick adds some convincing graphic examples.)

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3 Comments on “Please dress up the Em dash”

  1. John Kort Says:

    Great article about emdash!

    Can you comment on whether there should be a comma after “everything” and before the emdash in the following?

    1) Having lived in the town that had everything–culture, society, and people–, John valued good things in life.

    or

    2) Having lived in the town that had everything–culture, society, and people–John valued good things in life.

    Thanks!

    • Brian Steel Says:

      Sorry for the inordinate delay, John!
      Why not enclose the list in ordinary parentheses and then add a comma?

      Having lived in the town that had everything (culture, society, and people), John valued [the] good things in life.
      BTW, you used an ENdash, which I prefer anyway!
      Best wishes,
      Brian Steel

  2. CarolDru Says:

    At last, someone who agrees with me on breathing space either side of the EN and EM dash. The crowded dash offends my sensibility, except where it indicates an abrupt interruption, which – visually – it is.


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