The Overgrown Dash

by Mark L. Levinson

It sure wasn’t Noah who designed the typewriter keyboard, because there are loners on it where there should be pairs:  no left and right single quotes, just the unisex apostrophe; and a cloven copy of it for the left and right double quotes.

When computers replaced typewriters and the number of keys on the keyboard doubled, you’d have thought that a few of the fresh new keys might be allocated to the most important punctuation that the typewriter omitted.  But it wasn’t writers who designed the standard computer keyboard.  Not with a dozen function keys on it, two sets of number keys on it, two sets of arrow keys on it, but the keys for the left and right quotes, for the thin space, and for the em and en dashes still missing.

The em dash was not just left off the keyboard.  While no one was looking at it over on the upper-ascii sidelines, it was sabotaged. Traditionally the em dash occupies the width of the lowercase letter m.  Or, some say, the uppercase letter M.  Or its length matches the point size, so that for example an em dash in 12-point type is twelve points long.  M-wise and m-wise, and arguably point-wise, Microsoft made the em dash too long in Times New Roman, which has been everyone’s default font for word processing since the first Macintosh gave us wysiwyg at the office.  (It’s not that Microsoft’s 12-point em dash is more than 12 points long; it’s too long for the type because the type isn’t 12 points high unless you count a little of the space between the lines, which traditionally type designers don’t count.)

You’re wondering why I mentioned a thin space.  At least some you are.  If instead you’re wondering what an em dash is, check Wikipedia or Google.  Thin spaces are nice between a pair of initials, as in J.K. Rowling or C.W. Moss.  And they’re also nice around an em dash.  Often you see the em dash fused to the letters that precede and follow it, as if it were connecting the words; but whereas a hyphen can connect words, the job of an em dash is to separate them.  To separate not just words but whole phrases, in fact.  So a bit of space is fitting and proper.

Hit the space bar before and after your em dash, though, and you get two too-big spaces surrounding your too-big em dash.

Even a well-made em dash is a dramatic item of typography.  In order not to overwhelm the reader’s eye, a maximum of two to a sentence, and preferably two to a paragraph, is advisable in any case.  But how to keep the extra length, plus the extra space, from making the obtrusiveness intolerable?  

Personally, I’d be happy to see the space omitted at the left of the dash, so that it would take its sequential place like a comma, semicolon, or colon:  no space before, space after.  But instead, conventional wisdom seems to have decided to set dashes in a way that makes a pair of them symmetrical, like parentheses, portraying them as symbols of hierarchy rather than as symbols of sequential flow.

On a word processor you can produce thin spaces by simply fudging the point size, with or without a macro, but you may not want to go to the trouble.  In HTML you can specify a thin space, but I’m not sure you can trust every browser to understand it.  There’s enough trouble making browsers understand the dashes.  (I didn’t give J.K. Rowling or C.W. Moss a thin space above, and I hope you didn’t go crazy looking for one; and there are no dashes in this article.)

A popular alternative to the em dash is an en dash surrounded by regular spaces.  The too-short dash and the too-big spaces add up to a break of approximately the right length.  Just make sure that the first space is a non-breaking space, because you don’t want a dash to begin a line.  And start writing polite letters to the children of Bill Gates, in hopes that the next generation of owners will fix Microsoft’s typography.  I’d suggest focusing on his daughter Phoebe, because maybe she’d like to see her “oe” represented properly and easily as a ligature.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.