DASHES help please!

schereme's picture

Can someone please explain to me when to use En, em and hyphens? Also, when does one put space are the dash?


kegler's picture

here is a quick primer

pattyfab's picture

Dashes are so often misused! It doesn't help that they can very a LOT in width from font to font. You are never supposed to put spaces around the dash (as it says in the primer).

Linda Cunningham's picture

Great primer. I've got a rackful of editing style guides, and they are all pretty much in agreement with kegler's post.

Nick Shinn's picture

Not only do dashes vary in width from font to font, but also height and thickness. Some have built-in space on either side, while others don't. So like most things typographical, the trick is to get to know the typefaces you work with, and experiment to produce the best setting.

As a rule of thumb, if you're thinking about using an em dash and not quite sure about how it will work out for a particular setting, use the en-dash with a space either side instead.

pattyfab's picture

Nick - beg to differ. As in the primer, the em and en dashes have very different functions, and should not be used interchangeably or have spaces around them. The en is a connecting dash; it represents a span of time or space. The em is a separating dash—to set apart a thought or idea. I do find that in some cases the em in particular is kerned too tight, but you can adjust those in the kerning tables (and I do).

Stephen Coles's picture

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).

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.

Hey Patty - you just used a hypen with spaces when addressing Nick! Is that ok? ;)

pattyfab's picture

Yeah, I did use a hyphen, and often do when typing emails or other informal correspondence because I'm too lazy to do the shift option thingie. I also sometimes use all lowercase in email but that ain't correct typesetting either. And I use abbreviations and shorthand too altho (there's one) I wouldn't in a book or other printed piece.

As we have all noted there is a lot of variety in size of dashes but that's no excuse for poor typesetting. I do kern a little extra space around an em if it's too tight, which they often are. And yes it's cool to horizontally scale the dashes a bit to suit your taste, I've even created style sheets just for dashes.

But the original question in this thread concerned usage and I'm old school—I think it's important to use dashes correctly and not mix them up.

Nick Shinn's picture

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.
On the other hand, Electra's em dash has plenty of sidebearings, i.e. built-in spaces. No trouble there, but "space - en dash - space doesn't look bad either, so that setting works in both fonts.

For more experienced typographers, I would agree with you that the old school emdash with no added space is ideal, but may require nuancing, such as inserting some manual kerning or hair space, and maybe baseline shift, depending on the font and the typographer's taste.

pattyfab's picture

Nick [space hyphen space] I agree the Futura em is clunky—too long and too high—but I don't think the en with spaces improves it. The Electra em is nice tho.

I am a stickler but also realize that the average Joe doesn't even know the difference. Of course the average Joe doesn't look at the front and back cover of a book together to notice how nicely you've balanced and lined up the various elements either. And wouldn't care that the fractions weren't converted or whether there were prime marks instead of smart quotes. Typesetting is a lonely business but I come from book publishing, where this kind of thing matters. And I'm not dumbing down for the average Joe.

On a similar note, what is the deal with ellipses? There's a keystroke for them (option semicolon) but when I get a manuscript it's always space-period-space-period-space-period. Then you have to deal with line breaks, etc. What is up with that????

Spire's picture

Not every computer has an Option key.

KenBessie's picture

The masses don't care about typography. You do. Do it right.

The masses benefit from good typography, whether they see it or not.

To bitch about space-dot-space-dot-space-dot-space is petty. To simply, and quietly, replace it with a proper typographic glyph is proper. We hear your pain.

Now we'll work on those dashes :-)

William Berkson's picture

According to Bringhurst, the use of n with spaces or thin spaces either side is standard and recommended English style for asides, and m dash recommended American style. He argues for the n dash with spaces as better because it puts less of a hole in the text. I think he's right, but many fonts now are doing 'em dashes' less than an em, with spaces. So it's getting a little complicated.

Nick Shinn's picture

What is up with that????

It's probably a traditional standard from typewriter days.
On the upside, the technological gap between typewriter and letterpress creates design space for typography.

pattyfab's picture

Yeah but not when some wonky editor is correcting you.

William, what do the Brits do for dates, etc. where we would use the en dash?

William Berkson's picture

>what do the Brits do for dates

I just looked back at Bringhurst, which I got not quite accurate from memory. He says the m-dash for a 'phrase marker' is 'Victorian'. He says, "Like the oversized space between sentences, it belongs to the padded and corsetted aesthetic of Victorian Typography." I remember the use of the spaced n-dash from my years in England, and it is part of Tschichold's recommended style for Penguin. I suspect it is in other English style books, but I don't have any on hand.

For dates, Bringhurst recommends en dashes without spaces, as is also American style, eg. in the Chicago Manual of Style.

If I remember rightly from earlier Typophile discussions, Matthew Carter came up with the idea of three-quarter em dashes with spaces out to the em. Being a 'mid Atlantic' kind of guy, I guess this is apt. I think it is probably the best solution. Kent Lew wrote that in Whitman he did the Carter-style em dashes and also negatively kerned them so if keyed in successively they make a solid line.

eliason's picture

I've been using the ellipses character instead of multiple periods more often, but I've noticed that (at least in the fonts/word processors I've been using) if I want four-dot ellipses (eg to indicate the end of a sentence followed by elided text) a period + ellipses looks bad. The space that appears between the characters is not equal to that between the dots of the ellipses character.

What's a perfectionist to do?

Nick Shinn's picture

This is nice, from 1940.
I believe it was written, or edited, with typographic appearance in mind.
There seems to be a variety of marks used for subordinate clauses:
-brackets (parentheses)
The variety animates the setting, along with frequent paragraph breaks and italicization.
Dashes are used more often with quotations, perhaps to contrast with the quote marks themselves, whereas brackets are favoured for the author's text.

The dashes are narrow and the word spaces wide, compared with how it would usually be done today*, but as has been mentioned, the main thing is to find your style and be consistent -- readers will "get" it pretty quickly, because that's the kind of adjustment they make all the time, reading material as diverse as newspapers, magazines, books, advertisements, etc. So no need to dull down to some conservative ideal of what's considered most readable.

*a combination of the metrics (character widths) in the font, and the H&J setting.

CameronM's picture

My two cents... (and I'm in Australia, so not sure where that fits in to British or American style, probably both)

I use an en dash to indicate a range, sometimes with a space, sometimes not (eg Mon–Fri, 9–5pm; 4 September – 5 October), depending on if the 'ranged' items also have spaces within them.

In extended text, I like the em-dash with hair spaces either side to indicate the change-of-thought. Although some editors that we use think that is an old-style approach and prefer spaced ens instead.

eliason - I think the difference in space between the dots within an ellipsis and a period that follows makes sense. Otherwise, it would look like an ellipsis with four dots? I'd even go so far as to insert a thin space to make the difference noticeable.

timd's picture

William's memory is correct, for most uses in UK space en space is the norm and depending on the typeface look at whether it would be improved with a flexi (usually narrower) space instead, I very rarely use em dashes. As for dates Cameron's post about covers it. Maybe it is just being unused to seeing them but I find em dashes do add a biiiiig gap even in the Electra sample Nick posted.

pattyfab's picture

Cameron: yes, we're in agreement—the en connects and the em separates. I have yet to meet an editor who will allow any breach of that norm and I've been designing books for 20 years. I'm sure one can get away with more creative use of dashes in other contexts.

Tim: The point of the em dash is exactly that: to add a big gap. It represents a gap in thinking, a change in thought. I happen to like the width of the em in this font (Mercury is it?) It's too bad when it's either disproportionately wide or kerned too tight but those can be adjusted and should.

FYI (and I'm not sure where the Brits fit in) it is also common in Europe not to indent paragraphs, which I find makes for hard reading.

timd's picture

> It represents a gap in thinking, a change in thought.
But surely an experienced reader would use a comma or semi colon in the same way, for example in Nick’s print example I find it difficult to explain why the em dashes are used when a comma could do the same job, I don't really need to see the pause quite so forcefully.

pattyfab's picture

An em is more emphatic than a comma. Comma implies continuation, em is a break or aside. As in the primer, the em replaces either a colon or parenthesis. Emily Dickinson was the queen of the em dash.

Nick Shinn's picture

the em replaces either a colon or parenthesis.

True, but it also does its own thing. The colon and parenthesis are short and vertical, whereas the length of the em dash -- imagine oneself writing it -- provides urgency and continuity.

Dashes are also visual design elements, look at the symmetry and shape of:
"All right, boys--that's enough."

So much more attractive than:
"All right, boys: that's enough."

"All right, boys, that's enough."
which lacks the forcefulness the text warrants.

"All right boys, that's enough."
would be OK.

It's not enough to rely solely on grammatical rules and standards.

franzheidl's picture

that's all very interesting, i wasn't aware that there were cultural/national differences in usage of en-/em-dash.
I can only comment/add on the ‘traditional’ usage in germany:
the m-dash aka „Streckenstrich“ (something along the lines of ‘distance-stroke’) was to be used to designate a distance/span of time and space like „10—12 km“/„12—14.00 Uhr“; or to be used in amounts of money with no digits like „10,— Mark“. The interesting thing is that you almost never see it being used today, i suspect exactly because it is deemed too long, as stated above. When used, you rarely see it without small 1/8th- to 1/4th-em spaces over here.
Seeing the em-dash in use as described today to me makes quite a traditional, if not ‘reactionary’ impression, like using the st-ligature in body copy, if you get my drift; but of course it depends on the typeface being used, context, etc. I find the en-dash sufficient in most cases.
Apparently there is no reliable rule of thumb to be found here, as the design of both dashes varies too much from typeface to typeface.

Stephen Coles's picture

Just an FYI for Patty and all: See the "Formating guidelines" below. Typophile is enhanced with "SmartyPants", a script that translates ASCII characters into "correct" characters once you hit the "Post comment" button. For example:

  • straight quotes become "correct quotes", beginning and ending
  • two hyphens -- become an em dash
  • three dots ... become an ellipsis
Nick Shinn's picture

straight quotes become “correct quotes”, beginning and ending

...and abbreviation marks become "incorrect".

Stephen Coles's picture


ben_archer's picture

What is up with that????

Surely that is why we have search and replace functions; I never yet had an author's MS supplied that didn't require hours of tidying up prior to it being typeset… much of it is just about old typist's conventions.

There was a really fine post by Jason Dewinetz just over a year ago at
http://typophile.com/node/12883 which might make good related reading to this thread.

Not every computer has an Option key.
Well ALT then alright.

FYI (and I’m not sure where the Brits fit in) it is also common in Europe not to indent paragraphs, which I find makes for hard reading.

I'm not at all sure where you get this from, Patty; all the Brit typos I know would be horrified by the absence of para indenting. As Cameron points out, plenty of (Brit) typesetting convention still persists in Australia (and New Zealand). In a situation where there is no indent, then surely there is a line break, an outdent, a pilcrow or a drop cap or some other method of signalling the para break, no?

As for the Europeans, I just can't imagine the likes of Spiekermann, Noordzij, Porchez et al really trying to make it hard for the reader to distinguish paragraphs.

Nick Shinn's picture

Stephen, layout code that substitutes [space quotesingle] by [space quoteleft] gets abbreviations such as '66 or 'coz wrong.

Stephen Coles's picture

Ah, yes indeed. John Gruber, author of Smarty Pants addresses the issue in the documentation:

Algorithmic Shortcomings

One situation in which quotes will get curled the wrong way is when apostrophes are used at the start of leading contractions. For example:

'Twas the night before Christmas.

In the case above, SmartyPants will turn the apostrophe into an opening single-quote, when in fact it should be a closing one. I don’t think this problem can be solved in the general case — every word processor I’ve tried gets this wrong as well. In such cases, it’s best to use the proper HTML entity for closing single-quotes (’ or ’) by hand.

Nick Shinn's picture

He justifies Smarty Pants' shortcoming by citing Quark, InDesign, etc. as precedents. They all accept it as a necessary evil, 'cause the problem is insoluble. Few bother to correct it, to the extent that the mistake has become the norm.

Spire's picture

I don't believe that the problem is theoretically insoluble.

I've actually tackled it in the past, and my implementation, while not 100% perfect, was definitely better than that of SmartyPants.

Stephen Coles's picture

By all means, please write Gruber with the solution. I'm sure he'd like to improve the script.

Nick Shinn's picture

I don’t believe that the problem is theoretically insoluble.

Abbreviated words, maybe (with the help of a dictionary), but numbers?

How does a smart application distinguish between '66 was a good year and '66 is a good age'?

Spire's picture

Stephen: I may just do that if I am able to find the time to dig up my old implementation and get it in a presentable format.

Nick: That particular case is very easy. The latter example has a matching pair, but the former doesn't.

In general, all you really have to do is determine when there are matching pairs and when there aren't. In practice, it can of course get tricky (and the parsing can get pretty hairy), but it's currently possible to do an excellent job.

I say "excellent" as opposed to "perfect". Doing a perfect job, while not theoretically impossible, would require perfect natural-language processing, which is a Very Hard AI challenge that we haven't yet overcome.

BTW, the job is much easier for software like SmartyPants than it is for, say, Microsoft Word. That's because Word does it in real-time (as you type), while SmartyPants has the luxury of processing the full text at once.

Stephan Kurz's picture

Ok, let's expand the problem to Abbreviations plus Apostrophes
'66 was a good year for Kate Moss' mother
’66 was a good year for Kate Moss' mother

Spire's picture

That's no longer a matching pair. The first apostrophe is followed by a digit, which weights the probability heavily in favor of it being an apostrophe. The second apostrophe has an s before it and a space afterwards (and no punctuation), which similarly increases its probability being an apostrophe rather than a closing quotation mark. This evidence, taken together, allows us to make a reasonable guess that we have two unconnected apostrophes. The guess may sometimes turn out to be wrong, but in most cases -- as in this one -- it will be correct.

(I'm a little disconcerted by the repeated challenges. I did say that the parsing can get tricky, and isn't currently perfect. It's easy to construct pathological cases that will trip up even the best of the current solutions. In practice, such cases occur very infrequently.)

Brian_'s picture

Before you scale that rectangle just be sure it actually is a rectangle.

Nick Shinn's picture

Spire, please excuse the pathology, it's too much fun.
I'm very interested in just how perfect such substitutions have to be, with regards to contextual alternates in OpenType. In particular, I'm contemplating how to substitute the "x" by the multiply character.

the job is much easier for software like SmartyPants

However, if InDesign can incorporate Paragraph Composer, what you propose is of the same order.

Palatine's picture

Nick, that "Smattering of Ignorance" sample is just beautiful.

Would you, or someone else, mind telling me what the exact margin measurements might be for that page, the font, font point size, leading and such?

I love the amount of white space on the page. It's a joy to read such material.

Nick Shinn's picture

It's 12 on 16 Linotype Janson.
Page size is 5 1/4" x 8 1/8" (Smarty Pants -- give me back my hash marks!)
You can get the book for less than delivery cost at Amazon. I've read it several times, Levant is such a great wit, and the insights into the creative workings of popular culture in the 20s and 30s are amazing.

Palatine's picture

Thank you, Nick. I have several works by E.B. White that are similar in style and typography. I just wanted to compare.

A.F.'s picture

"I do kern a little extra space around an em…"
You say you are old school?

Nick Shinn's picture

Thanks Christian -- I looked up EB White and see that he wrote for Holiday. I have a collection spanning the '50s, which I inherited from my father-in-law, so I'll take a look and see if I can dig up anything by him. With illustrations by Bemelmans, hopefully!

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