The three dashes

January 10, 2017
Robert Gallerani

“Like oratory, music, dance, calligraphy – like anything that lends its grace to language – typography is an art that can be deliberately misused. It is a craft by which the meaning of a text (or its absence of meaning) can be clarified, honored and shared, or knowingly disguised.”

—Robert Bringhurst

We believe that the details matter. Humble texts, as well as the grand, may benefit from the application of good typographical standards. Good typography makes the text more effective. Historically, those empowered with the knowledge of good typographical etiquette were typographers themselves, or designers.

Dashes are a small thing that matter a lot to us. When reviewing résumés, for example, we always look at the dashes as a barometer of a person’s typographical prowess. For designers, it is essential, but for everyone else it means that the details matter them, too. Anyone can make their texts look great, and here’s how.

There are three dashes. (Actually, there can be more than 5 dashes, but for the purpose of this discussion, there are three). These are the hyphen, and two sizes of long dash: the en dash – (half an em) in width, and the em dash— which is one em wide. Type is normally measured in points and picas, but horizontal spacing is measured in ems. In 6 point type, an em is 6 points; in 12 point type it is 12 points, and in 24 point type it is 24 points. Thus, a one em space is proportionately the same in any size. They are named for the length of a typeface’s lower-case n and upper-case M respectively.

1) The hyphen –  Standard computer keyboards and typewriters include only one dash: the hyphen. This is the only dash most people really know or use. On a standard keyboard, it is the one to the right of the 0 (zero). Hyphens are used to link words and parts of words, like good-hearted, sugar-free and mother-in-law. Never use a hyphen in place of an en dash or an em dash.

2) The en dash – The en dash is used to represent a span or range of numbers, dates, or time, and stands for the word to. Thus: 4–5 pm; October 15–30; 10–20 mm. The hyphen is too short to serve this function.

3) The em dash – An em dash is the normal method to separate phrases in running text. Depending on the context, the em dash can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons—in each case to slightly different effect.

Either the en dash or the em dash may be used to denote a break in a sentence or to set off parenthetical statements. Style and usage guides vary, but often in this function en dashes are used with spaces and em dashes are used without them.

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