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.
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