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.