Friday, September 18, 2009

Dash this off

Charles is here. Hide the silver.

Much debate this week among the copywriters at the ad agency on a topic that requires your learned feedback – the em dash/en dash conundrum.

As you no doubt recall from your pre-K grammar classes, an en dash is so-named because it is a dash (–) that is about the width of your household letter n, and it’s used when you’re describing a range, such as 8-10 novels, which you’d read as “last night I wrote eight to ten novels.” The bigger, bolder em dash – the size of the manly letter M – is used to separate a thought, the kind of thing that would fit just as nicely in a matched set of parentheses. You’d use an em dash like I used it above – note the clever pre-planning – and, next to commas, it is my favorite punctuation mark. But all this is old news to any five-year old – the big debate is on the issue of spaces.

Fuddy-duddy rule books and old school teachers’ pets insist that the em dash should always be set tight between the words it’s separating—like this—and never surrounded by spaces – like this – and that all who follow the space-style rule should be burned at the stake as heretics. Their words, not mine.

Naturally, I run with a more enlightened crowd. This crowd unshackles the em dash, allowing it to live in open spaces, breathing the fresh air of freedom-loving modern times. Not to drop names, but that crowd includes The New York Times Manual of Style, an obscure publishing house called Penguin, the folks at Cambridge University Press and most all of the sober and upstanding publishers in Germany and France. I’m no theologian, but any style that meets the high standards of the order-loving Germans and the style-mad French must by pre-ordained by the gods.

Careful readers of this blog and my published works will be quick to point out the hypocrisy, as the noble em dash is severely and consistently constrained in each of my three Poisoned Pen press mysteries. Before the mobs take up torches and surround my residence, let me assure you that, when written, the books all followed the form that I have tirelessly advocated. The final product is what is known in the biz as “the editors’ preference”. My love for my editor at Poisoned Pen Press knows no equal, but I will say that – on this point alone – she is misguided. There is still hope – she is a brilliant woman and she may yet come to see the error of her ways – but until they are reprinted in lambskin-bound collector editions, I fear my printed words betray my true allegiance.

So what say you on this issue? Do you count yourself among the enlightened, forward-thinking, liberty-cherishing writers who oppose tyranny and oppression in all its forms, or are you with the other side?


Vicki Delany said...

To my shock, my copy of Editing Canadian English doesn't even mention the em dash. Continuing on... A Canadian Writers Reference cleary states (when talking about the em dash) "do not put spaces before or after the dash." The Chicago Manual Of Style, 15th edition, always uses no spaces around the em-dash. You, Charles, are the weakest link.

Rick Blechta said...

Good post!

Besides often being mistaken for you, Charles, I have been known in some circles as a "punctuation guru". I've even waded through Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Know what that dot over an 'i' is called? I do. It's a tiddle!

So, naturally, I have thoughts on em dashes, en dashes, hyphens, virgules and all the rest.

My preference is to not use em dashes with or without space unless that particular typeface has a shortish one. If it's too long, I set it by horizontally reducing it and then kerning out a bit of space at each end. Otherwise they look as if a beam has been shoved up the rear of the letter the em dash follows and right up the nose of the word coming. Either that or some show jumping is going to take place between your words.

But I must take you to task on what an ellipsis is. This is an ellipsis: .... Those three little dots Yes, I know there were 4 back there. One was a period, or as it's know across the pond in England, a full stop. (Do they have half stops? Maybe that would be a comma.)

Anyway, parentheses, (), are a completely different kettle of fish from those 3 legendary dots. They're more often than not now called 'brackets', which is probably because few people can spell parentheses correctly.

And then there's the poor, misunderstood, underachieving semi-colon which is being threatened by extinction as I type this response. It is a bit of a good news story though, because global warming has nothing to do with it.

And as for the proposed interrobang, don't get me started...

Anonymous said...

Dusty here - Charles' coworker and apparently one of "those people" described in this post. In advertising we make words look pretty, so we throw spaces wherever we want. And we take them out wherever we want. (I'll never forget getting into copywriting & being told to never, ever, no matter what, put two spaces after periods. And no, as a matter of fact, it didn't matter if any English professors had taught me otherwise.)
So why even bother thinking about silly rules and "to space or not to space" when it comes to em dashes? Because of one critical, all-important rule: brand consistency. Now I can't let one print ad go out in the "em dash, no spaces" style while yesterday's flyer for that same brand went out in the "en dash even though it should be an em dash" style, now can I? How would I sleep at night, Charles? Jeez.

Charles benoit said...

Rick - you are correct on the ellipses issue of course - this is, embarrassingly, the second time in a month where I have misused the word and I blame it completely on Sr. Marie Asumpta, my 4th grade teacher at St. Johns who drilled that incorrect term so deeply into my still-jelling brain that I still, after 40+ years, still get it wrong. I will do the appropriate penance, just don't hit me with that ruler again.

Charles benoit said...

Oh, and I went and corrected the post, pulling the incorrect ellipse comment, so now, dead Rick, people will read your brilliant comment and wonder WTF you're talking about.
You're welcome.

Anonymous said...

Dusty (real name?) is 100% correct. It isn't the rule, it's the consistent use that counts.

Charles benoit said...

Dear Anonymous (if that is YOUR real name),

Yes, Dusty is her real name. And yes, she is correct.

(Real Name)

Joni Langevoort said...

I am passionately devoted to dashes -- the kind that actually have two dashes and are separated by spaces and remind you to slow down your reading because I'm thinkin' of two different things here; but I like semicolons, too. I rarely use run-on sentences... but have been known to do so.

Rick Blechta said...

Two dashes don't exist — except on typewriters. They should never be used except on stupid programs like HTML — what we're all writing in when we make our comments. Actually, Joni — if that is your real name — if you've been properly initiated into the Society of HTML, you'll know how to do an en or em dash correctly, as I've been doing here. But if I were to show how to do that, they'd kill me!

Which brings me to my second point, Dusty — if that is your real name. (No, wait...Charles covered that one!). The only reason to put two spaces after a period is because typewriters use what's called monotype (where every letter is the same width allotment) and you need those 2 spaces to help keep sentences clear.

Now that we're all on computers, we have wonderful things like variable width type (nearly every typeface on your computer but courier), so it looks perfectly dreadful to use two spaces. Why that's still being taught by teachers and professors (who know diddly squat about proper typesetting practice) is a national disgrace!

So that's the real reason you shouldn't use two spaces after a period. And it is a good reason, isn't it? It's almost as good as knowing what a tiddle is...

Susan D said...

Well, I'm a non-space em dash girl, but alas, too often em dashes are now appearing on blogs and comments and all kinds of other on-line presentations, such as Charles's posting as viewed on my screen, as an EN DASH (with or without spaces), even though I'm sure it started life as an em dash. So I guess spaces help avoid the confusion.

I blame Microsoft, because so often we can.

Next, can we talk about whether it's "Charles'" or "Charles's"?

Charles benoit said...

Charles' or Charles's? I don't care as long as it's mine, mine all mine...Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha ha! (that was a maniacal laugh, by the way, just in case it didn't come across in HTML.)

Ann Littlewood said...

Dear Chuck, When can I have my semi colons back? They have been out of vogue long enough. And by the way, you have to bully MS Word into generating an em dash. I happen to be good at that, but so many writers are not. (Don't get me started on "knowing how to use the tool you use every day").

Ann (not her real name)

Joni langevoort said...

Well, I get confused when you all use big words like HTML. But, of course, you're right -- I would never use two dashes when writing by hand. Please don't show me how to use the en or em dash correctly, Rick, I don't want to die. And I think I'll change my name, just to be safe. -- Alberta

Donis Casey said...


Rick Blechta said...

Ahoy, Alberta and Ann — if that be your real names!

Today be Talk Like a Pirate Day (, so I'm having to inform ye about that there punctuation in a pirate voice today. Argh!

I be usin' them semi-colons for nigh on 40 voyages now and encouragin all me mess mates to do likewise and do it proper. So far they been refusin' and the Cap'n and I (being 1st mate and all) have been forced to send them down to Davey Jones's Locker. It be a right ugly business. Argh!

I be tellin' ye both that you better punctuate proper or you'll be forced to walk the plank. And if Charles the Blackhearted be withholdin' your semi-colons or any other form of punctuatin', then he's going to be handed the black spot, because as ye all know, pirates always punctuate properly.

Excuse me while we board the good ship Microsoft and hoist the Jolly Roger. Arrrrrgh!

Susan D (my real initial) said...

Have to admit
a) I totally forgot today was TLAPD. It's probably too late in the day to shiver me timbers.

b) I'm a compulsive Macro-Maker in Evil Word 2007, and have all kinds of editing macros for things like replacing double spaces with single spaces (because at my age, my fingers, which are the same age, refuse to learn new tricks) and replacing the -- (double hyphen, in case it didn't come through) with an Em Dash.

Rick Blechta said...

Arrrrgggggghhhhh, Susan D (assuming you wouldn't lie to yer mess mates),

It never be too late to talk like a swabbie! Why, I be talkin' like this most o' the time. (Grog, Jim! Bring me some grog!")

Why be you usin' MS Word when there be better programs around? Word Perfect, now there's a program I can hoist the Jolly Roger over! Today, we boarded the HMS Microsoft. Young Billy cried like a babe when we dressed him like a Nancy and then keelhauled him. Argh! It was a fine day!!

Thank you for stoppin' by our little alehouse and sharin' yer thoughts with us buccaneers!

Joni Langevoort said...

Having been forbidden by my Penn State son to use any hint of pirate language on Saturday when we were in State Collge for the football game, I am tempted to write this in pirate-ese two days after the actual celebration. But I won't, as it's just not as much fun when no one else is speaking pirate. Must wait another 363 days. Sigh.

(Shameless plug alert) Rick, why don't you consider a visit to Malice Domestic next year? Ask Chuck and Debbie, it's a lot of fun! (Yes, I'm on the board.)

And now I believe I will go splice the mainbrace. -- Mad Ethel

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