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Sparky's Typesetting School, Part 2

OK, now it's time to tackle the commonly abused dashes and hyphens. (This one's for you, Brad, baby.) This is an area of typesetting that people always seem to get wrong, presumably from some combination of never learning the rules and not being able to easily typeset the correct marks. I certainly don't recall ever learning about the correct use of dashes during any of my school days, except for a few basic principles about how to hyphenate words properly. But, like correct use of apostrophes and quotation marks, there's a method to the madness. When everything is used properly, there's just enough difference between the marks to offer adequate visual clues as to what's going on without too much distraction. that’s the point, kids: not to be super fussy, but to follow a system developed over time so you could know what was going on right away without thinking about it too much. Trouble is, that all breaks down when no one learns the system.

The apostrophe issue is a big aggravation, but the dash issue is really my pet peeve. It seems as if no one ever uses them correctly, software never sets them properly, and people barely even use them in a consistent wrong way, which makes it horrible to proofread and correct a manuscript.

This is the one everyone knows and everyone uses. It's easy, it's always been right there on your typewriter and computer keyboards, but it's not meant to be the factotum we've made it. Use a hyphen when words break at the end of a line, when you have compound adjectives or phrases, or in hyphenated names. Compare the hyphen to the other dashes here — it's the shortest of the lot, because it's supposed to suggest a very close relationship between what's on either side.

En Dash
Almost always ignored and replaced with a hyphen, which is dead wrong. The en dash, like the en space, is so named because it is exactly half the width of an em (see below, but if you ever played scrabble a lot you probably already learned that at some point). It is used to denote an interval of some kind (1980–90, 1990–2000, A–Z, Parts 1–5, etc.) and in some complex compound phrases. Think of is as meaning "to" or "through." Notice that it's longer than a hyphen.

Em Dash
An em is a unit of typographic measurement equal in width to the point size of the font (in theory, the width of a capital M). Notice how the em dash — like these here — is noticeably wider than a hyphen. It is used to offset a related sentence fragment within a sentence. In bibliographies, three em dashes in a row are used when a piece of information, such as an author's name, is unknown. It's a very clear visual cue that something is missing, or being dropped in. It's bigger than a hyphen because it needs to be seen more clearly. A hyphen with spaces on either side just doesn't do the trick, kids. Ideally, there should be a wee bit of space on either side of an em dash, but most computer fonts have never drawn it that way, so don't be afraid to kern in a little air around your dashes.

When you're typing an e-mail or preparing a manuscript for someone else to e-mail, you're basically forced to use hyphens instead of the other dashes, which are not part of the most basic ASCII character set. Please, I beg you, follow these accepted rules of thumb:

By the way, this is a great reference for setting all these characters properly for your web pages. Again, you will find very clear rules for grammatical usage in Words Into Type or your preferred style manual, which is good because I don't want to get into all of them.

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