Using em dash to mark interview dialogues

Hinching Chan's picture

Quoting from The Elements of Typographic Style, a good use of em dashes is to introduce speakers in a narrative dialogue. This is inspired by the European style, and is less fussy than quotation marks:

Taking a slightly different approach,
Instead of
Q: How are you
A: I am fine.

I've used
How are you
— I am fine

for an interview spread which I am designing.

I've seeking for feedback whether would this way of marking interview dialogues be a feasible one. Suggestions are much appreciated.

pattyfab's picture

Why do you have them hang partway outside the left margin? I'd either flush them with the type or hang them out all the way.

Reed Reibstein's picture

Well, I find the way you implemented it to be a bit confusing. The first bit of dialogue is in italic, suggesting a question, but the next two are not. Are there multiple people responding? If there are, then you need some way to differentiate between the two -- and the em dash method on its own won't work well. But if it's just one person's response in multiple paragraphs, then you shouldn't put an em dash in the second paragraph -- it makes it seem like there's another person talking. Instead, just indent paragraphs until the next question is asked. You might find, though, that italicizing and screening the questions may do enough to differentiate them from the answers, so no need for em dashes.

In summary, it can work fine, but you need to refine it.

Maxim Zhukov's picture

With all due respect to Robert Bringhurst, I find that in English this format makes the text look like a list. English is not my native language, and I am used to the dashes in the dialogues (they are standard in Russian, French, and many other languages), but in English they look as odd and un-English as the guillemets.

Hinching Chan's picture

pattyfab Good question. The current setup is due to Adobe's Indesign settings when I have the optical margin alignments on. Ill try to flush them with the type instead.

auricfuzz Thanks for noticing the problem. It's rather a dilemma here as the next two which aren't in italics is basically two paragraphs by the same person. All interviews consists of the interviewee and the interviewer.

Personally I feel that the em dashes helps in directing the eye to the beginning of the question/answer quicker.

Updated: Here's a version with the implemented suggestions from the previous replies. Is it working better?

charles ellertson's picture

I would agree with the others that this needs some work, though not particularly with the suggestions -- except the one that you use a new dash only when there is a new speaker.

The partially outdented dash doesn't bother me too much visually -- an alternate treatment would be to outdent the first words of a new speaker -- but it does structurally. One part of using a dash is that it keeps some of its regular meaning.

I've been involved in some interesting arguments on em dashes. Richard Eckersley, a product of the London College of Printing, use to argue in favor of the word-spaced en dash. He argued that a dash separates two thoughts, whereas a closed-up emdash visually appears to join them. I finally got him to agree that another way to describe a dash is that it joins two thoughts without the grammatical work usually needed. Whether you describe a dash as joining or separating involves a bit of whimsy. We finally settled on a 3/4-em long dash centered in an em space as the perfect dash for normal use.

Now how is this relevant? Again, because I think the dash viewed as a character carries some of its usual meaning in this context. It isn't simply that a dash is more graceful than a bullet. If all you want is a visual separator, you could use almost anything.

To me, this is what is know as a design problem -- you need a cue, and it can be visual or grammatical, or both, and which you choose has an effect. So make it one you want.

&BTW, this appears to be 2-columns, with the attendant short measure. You could get by with an en-dash or 3/4 dash is space is a concern.


Hinching Chan's picture

charles_cFirstly, thanks for your opinion. I'd certainly look into switching to a 3/4 em dash if space is ever a huge concern.

My previous statement about the em dashes might sound misleading but the my main intentions of using the em dash is to reduce the repetition of the names. The usage of the em dashes within an interview itself works well in indicating a continuing conversation. Each question and answer relates back to the previous one and so on. (More or less similar to your concept of a dash being able to join two thoughts)

English isn't my first language. So pardon me if I'm not getting my point across that well.

Does the em dash typgraphically speaking works within this context if I may ask.

charles ellertson's picture

Does the em dash typgraphically speaking works within this context if I may ask.

Well, yes and no. As you say, the dash removes the repetition of using the names. If the text clearly & quickly identifies the speaker, a dash works fine. But if the questioner asks long and thought-provoking questions, a reader might get confused as to who is speaking. In other words, you are relying on context to identify each speaker. If this is pretty clear, the dash works. If it isn't, another approach is needed. If you don't want ot use the full name, initials work too --

C.E. Don't apologize, English is my only language.

H.C. (whatever you'd say, I don't want to put words in your mouth).

C.E. (long, rambling question).

H.C. (concise answer).

Etc. The initials could be small caps, though that might look strange in this context. If the magazine is informal, the period could perhaps be omitted, check with an editor.

I think something like this is what you were doing with the questioner's words set in italic, and the responder's words in roman, right? That works too, and with such a structure, the dash isn't needed, and might get in the way, since it can imply, as you say, a discontinuity.

But if the questions are short & obviously questions, there are only two speakers, and the answers clearly that, a dash will work fine.



blank's picture

The dash is redundant. You already have the font change handling the work; just use intro initials at the beginning of the article and at the beginning of a new section if the article is broken and continues elsewhere in the magazine.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

I agree with Maxim -- I am used to seeing em dashes opening lines of dialogue in Spanish-language novels, but only because it is an established convention for that language. I expect them to be there. Whereas in English, I expect to see quotation marks (again, in a novel -- interviews can be set differently).

Jpad makes a great point, too. Whether you use bold or italics to differentiate the questions from the answers, you already have a way to tell the two speakers apart. Just add their initials, names, or "Q" and "A" at the beginning of the first two comments, and you are all set.

timd's picture

My approach, within the format you have already employed, would be to hang the dash out of the measure, allowing the first paragraph of each question or reply to range left with subsequent paragraphs indented on the first line. I would also use the same dash – the italic looks slightly finer and shorter.


pattyfab's picture

I agree with the above, that you don't need a dash if you're using a different font to signify the various speakers. Initials could work too if you need further clarification.

Lex Kominek's picture

I agree. Get rid of the dashes.

- Lex

will powers's picture

Getting rid of em dashes: that's something I can get behind — sometimes. (What follows is a bit off topic, I admit.)

One of my pet peeves is the un-thinking use of the em dash on book jackets and ad cards before the name of a blurber. I refuse to let such uses stand on/in books from our publishing house. In such uses the em dash is an utterly inappropriate marker. This holds true also for such things as epigraphs.

The distinction between a bit of text and its author can be entirely visual. We have typeface, weight, color, spacing, indent to do that job.

I'm not sure when the practice began. But it is time for it to go.

A well-fitted 3/4 em dash in text is a thing of beauty, though.


charles ellertson's picture

Will, there is an argument for it. A dash signals a thought not (grammatically) connected to the previous sentence or clause. As some point, the author's name below the blurb is not connected -- you don't say "written by . . " etc. Though as you say, there is a long history for finding the name below the quote (generally recognized visual clue).

The same is often true of subheads, by the way. Instead of saying (more eloquently) "I'm through talking about this, now I want to talk about that -- i.e., a paragraph of transition, we just dump that paragraph & stick in a subhead. So, does it need to be bold, as is so often thought & taught? Or does it need to be bold only when the author is particularly opaque?

will powers's picture


Forgive me if I'm being a bit opaque myself this late in the evening. Are you saying there's an argument for getting rid of the em dash, or for keeping it?

In extended text: keep it, but use the spaced 3/4-em dash. This makes that "connection" work.

In the instance of jackets and covers, as well as epigraphs at chapter heads, etc: get rid of it. If I attribute a blurb or an epigraph through the use of a type change [most likely smalls or semibold], color, line feed, indent, etc., then even the thickest of readers will be able to comprehend the "written by" inherent in those visual changes.


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