A dashing diversion

A diversion from the news today is in order and so it is time for strong but frankly irrelevant opinions on punctuation.

I’ve a fairly loose relationship with grammar and I’m not famed for being a stickler for social norms on punctuation. However, I do have strong opinions on one aspect of punctuation because it is just poor design and that is in the area of dashes.

First a recap:

  • The hyphen – .The hyphen joins two parts of a word together, typically a prefix (e.g. co-ordinate) or as a layout consequence of a line breaking splitting a word in two. Use of the hyphen is more of a question of spelling than grammar as it pertains to the conventional representation of a word (e.g. many style guides promote “coordinate” over “co-ordinate” now). In addition to this, the hyphen is also used to join together distinct word together to form a single unit such as state-of-the-art as well as a whole heap of ways of joinging adjectives and adverbs together that I never get right. The hyphen is short and typically present on keyboards.
  • The en-dash – . I don’t know the full set of uses for the en-dash but the use I am familiar with is for connecting ranges. For example “ages 18–20” uses a en-dash to show the interval from 18 to 20. It can be used in a similar way to show a more abstract sense of a relationship between two things.
  • The em-dash —. The em dash is the perfect device for when a comma isn’t enough and parentheses are two much. It seperates parts of a sentence to add clarity.

The length roughly corresponds with the grammatical level of use:

  • hyphen is at a word level and used to join things to represent a single word-like concept.
  • an en-dash joins two concepts to imply a relationship between them.
  • an em-dash joins larger grammatical chunks together.

The problem is that they only difference between them visually is length and length is a poor indicator of anything in typography. Added to this issue we also have the subtraction symbol (−) which is basically just another horizontal line. For further confusion, we have additional horizontal line symbols that at least get some distinction because of their vertical positioning (the underline _ , the overline ‾, as well as things like the diacritical mark known as the macron ¯ which is supposed to have a letter under it).

Length is a poor distinguisher between letter like symbols as such symbols are meant to be invariant with size. An en-dash is visually indistinguishable from a hyphen written in the wrong size font. The “en” and “em” of the names refer to the relative width of the ‘n’ and the ‘m’ in the given typeface but those relative proportions aren’t fixed either.

It is just poor design.

So in the spirit of quixotic and hopeless reform let me suggest and alternative.

  • The hyphen should stay as it is.
  • The en-dash should be given a 5° rotation anticlockwise so that it appears to rise going from left to right. The rise is to suggest going from up from one place to another. Not all intervals shown by an en-dash represent an increase but many do when read left to right.
  • The em-dash should be given a 5° rotation clockwise so that it appears to fall going from left to right. The fall represents ‘briefly dipping out of the main thrust of the sentence’

The angle is small but big enough to be percieved without being visually distracting or in any danger with being confused with the forward or back slash symbols.


And that is my contribution to the world for today.

16 thoughts on “A dashing diversion

  1. Also the kind of subtle division only permissible with type. Handwritten, there’s no distinguishing a sloppy writer’s dashes. Few people are always precise enough for a 5 degree increment.

    em-dashes also should have spaces around them. Not doing so annoys me, even though it seems like a usage variant.


    1. Yes, style guides often say no spaces but I think that is rubbish. No spaces make them look even more like hyphens and physically join the letters together.

      Also yes on the handwriting issue. I used to favour the move to a thin-space for the number separator instead of the comma but it’s not viable when writing by hand. The comma (eg 10,000) works in both contexts but is confusing because the comma is the decimal separator in many countries (instead of the decimal point) but the confusion is rare in context.


  2. I believe that en and em dashes should have half a space (not a full space) on either side. Or maybe that’s just for en dashes. It’s been a while since I had to worry about that. A full space on either side of en or em dashes is, typographically, too much.

    Your proposal for em dashes falls down, it seems to me, in the fact that there are often (in the majority of times?) two em dashes, functioning as opening and closing parentheses. Both of them having a downward tilt is not going to work, and having the “closing” one an upward tilt will confuse it with an en dash.


      1. En-dashes might be best used with a half-space, but I favour em-dashes with a full space, since you’re not linking the individual words, you’re linking whole phrases.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Why not replace the em dash with a semicolon; it’s what it was created for, after all.

    There, problem solved 😛


    1. Doesn’t work when the thing between the em-dashes is a mid-sentence interjection that needs a second em-dash to complete. Semi-colons are for linking two phrases which are each grammatically complete, but need to be more closely paired than can be accomplished by two separate sentences. The phrase inside the em-dash doesn’t — I think — need to be a complete sentence, and the phrase outside it can be completed in the second half (when there is a second half).

      I could not have used a semicolon without rephrasing that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Then the obvious solution would be to rephrase your sentence using complicated convolutions in order to avoid semicolon abuse. It’s the only way to avoid dash confusion.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with Ed. A large fraction of the time – let’s say half the time – em dashes are used in pairs, like parentheses (but form a different sort of interruption than a parenthetical remark).

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I do think that if you’re going to drop the hyphen from words like “co-ordinate”, you should add a diaeresis — “coördinate” — to indicate the second “o” is sounded separately.

    (A diaeresis. Not an Umlaut. There is a Special Place In Hell reserved for those who confuse the diaeresis and the Umlaut.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a Special Place In Hell reserved for those who confuse the diaeresis and the Umlaut.
      I would like to subscribe to your blog or newsletter.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Or we could just go on using them all willy-nilly (hyphen) like everyone does nowadays, where we seem to be muddling through the way we did before there were typewriters and computers, back when the dashes were all handwritten and higgledy-piggledy.


    1. Part of the reason for the muddle is the computer automatically changing what you typed to what it thinks you meant, too.

      For manuscript style, an em-dash should be denoted by actually putting two hyphens down, and the computer auto-changing it makes the job of the person trying to set type HARDER.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The em-dash is certainly best typed on a computer with two hyphens, and the computer should be lectured about it.

        There needs to be a setting in every word processing program to do it correctly; at least that’s what I think. The two hyphens don’t form a continuous bar like dashes — as you see here — but they do indicate the em-dash-ness of it all.


      2. Huh. I’ll be. When I typed the two hyphens above, they had a half-space between them, but when it posted, it turned into an em-dash.

        Tricksy computers.

        Liked by 1 person

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