Where to Use En and Em Dashes: Lupton vs Bringhurst

Do you think that one must be mentally ill to care about the length of the dashes we use in writing? Then don’t read on. Here’s tonight’s fight for the typophiliacs!

Ellen Lupton: “Em dashes (—) express strong grammatical breaks. An em dash is one-em wide—the width of the point size of the typeface. No spaces are used around dashes.” (in Thinking With Type)

Robert Bringhurst: “The em dash is the nineteenth-century stand­ard, still pre­scribed by many edit­or­ial style books, but the em dash is too long for use with the best text faces. Like the over­sized space between sen­tences, it belongs to the pad­ded and cor­seted aes­thetic of Vic­torian typography. Use spaced en dashes – rather than em dashes or hyphens – to set off phrases.” (He just did it. In case you hadn’t noticed.) (in The Elements of Typographic Style)

I won’t tell where I put my money – though you must have found out by now. Lucky for us, both sides agree that we should put en dashes with no spaces “between digits to indicate a range” (like: 1–10 October; 25–30 mm).* But where should we use em dashes according to Bringhurst? To introduce speakers in narrative dialogue, like:

— But how do we even insert those dashes with our keyboards? she asked.
— Easy, he answered, look below.

en dash: alt + 0150 in Windows, option+hyphen in Mac
em dash: alt + 0151 in Windows, shift+option+hyphen in Mac

 

God it’s fun to write self-referentially about typography!

 


 

* Here’s something that may change your mind about the importance of dashes: The en dash between your birth and death dates on your headstone will be representing your whole life. All your joys and sorrows, adventures and disappointments, tucked in something slightly longer than a hyphen and shorter than an em dash. So go on ignoring them. The dashes will have the last word.
4 Comments

4 Comments
  1. The headstone example is beautiful.

    You haven’t given your view of which one we should follow, though.

  2. Jairo Benavides

    Thank you for this article, it has been really useful and to the point, you really helped me, I was finding really hard to choose between Lupton and Bringhurst

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