Saturday, June 18, 2011


There's a discussion thread on the Kindleboards about the use of hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes, and several of the people who posted clearly do not understand punctuation and typography. Here's what I posted (or attempted to post; it hasn't shown up yet):

The comments in this thread are indicative of why self-publishing gets a bad rap.

Failing to properly use the tools of the trade (in this case hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes) announces to a knowledgeable reader that the author/publisher lacks the ability to do a professional job.

It's like calling a plumber to unstop your toilet. Instead of bringing a plunger and a pipe wrench, he shows up with a table saw and a tire swing. He might still get the job done, but you'll know he's not a professional.

Although there are several style books available, the two most commonly used are The Chicago Manual of Style (primarily used by book publishers) and The Associated Press Stylebook (primarily used by newspaper and magazine publishers). Buy them. Read them. Keep them next to your computer and reference them often.

The 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, which I believe is the most current edition, spends five pages explaining the difference between the hyphen, the en-dash, and the em-dash. The Associated Press Stylebook offers a much shorter explanation of the use of the dash, but the two agree about what constitutes proper usage.

Their key point of disagreement? The Associate Press Stylebook advocates the use of a space on each side of the em-dash when used within text and The Chicago Manual of Style advocates against the use of a space on each side of the em-dash when used within text. And if you know anything about typography, you'll understand why they differ on this point.


Graham Powell said...

Doesn't spaces around the dash imply a different function than no spaces? I have always used no spaces when using a compound word (i.e. "bush-league") but used spaces around the dash when setting off a sort of parenthetical.

I don't know squat about typography, that's just how I've seen it used, and it seems to conform to the reader's expectations.

Michael Bracken said...

Graham, the problem may begin with improper terminology. The symbol between "bush" and "league" in "bush-league" is a hyphen, not a dash.

The most common forms of dashes are the en dash (the width of an en space; longer than a hyphen, shorter than an em dash) and the em dash (the width of a em space and the longest of the commonly used dashes).

(There are also 2-em dashes and 3-em dashes, but they have special uses not commonly encountered in modern fiction.)

The en dash may be the most commonly misused dash following the advent of word processing programs and desktop publishing programs because many people, untrained in typography, improperly use the en dash when the em dash is properly called for. And the en dash is not often called for in modern fiction.

So, why does AP advocate for spaces around the em-dash and Chicago advocate against it, and why does a knowledge of typography make it easier to understand the difference?

The more spaces there are in a line of type, the easier it is to justify the line of type.

AP is a stylebook for newspapers and magazines, which typically have type set in narrow columns. Adding a space on each side of an em-dash increases the number of spaces in a line of type.

Chicago is a stylebook for books, which typically have type set in wide columns and do not need the extra spaces to assist in justification.

Graham Powell said...

That's pretty interesting. I think I conflated a hyphen and a dash because you type the same character on a computer to generate them.

If you type a hyphen with spaces around it Word automatically converts it to an em-dash, of course.