Monday, 18 July 2011

Dashes: em, en...and tildes

In my occasional series on punctuation, I have reached the dash. Dashes used to be very popular back in the days when a book might begin, "I took a handsome to --- Street, in the small market town of ---, with a view to calling on Lord ---", a sentence that makes me want to hit the author with a rolled-up newspaper until he stops being so annoying. And in more devout times, when the third commandment was taken seriously, characters were wont to exclaim, "By G-d, sir!", another handy use for the dash.

These days many writers have an irrational dislike of brackets, and tend to use dashes instead (I like both of them). But what kind of dash do you use? If you are traditionally published, you won't get a choice; the publisher's house style will decide. As an indie, you make up your own mind.

It's the mark of an amateur to use a hyphen where a dash is intended. A hyphen with no spaces either side is even worse, and plain confusing. In typography you have the choice of an em-dash, so called as it is the width of a capital M with no spaces, or an en-dash, the width of a capital N with a space either side. I prefer the en-dash (as used by Penguin) because the spaces allow the text to flow better in digital format, where em-dashes can result in ugly gaps in the text.

And the tilde? For this post I looked it up on Wikipedia, and rather wished I hadn't. I almost certainly don't need to know all that, and neither do you. But it's one of the prettier punctuation marks.


  1. There is another use for the em dash which is to indicate a sudden breaking off in the middle of a sent--

  2. I have shrugged off the dash elitism in favor of ease and aesthetics. I use two dashes with a space before and after like so: "Typography -- God forbid he ever got the spelling right -- was his passion."

    Saves me nightmares in Word and the ensuing e-book formatting.

    The tilde is awesome and required when you’re using Spanish. Leave it alone, people!

  3. True, Ian, and it looks better than an en-dash in that situation.

    Steve, does Word turn that into a proper dash for you, then? And is it an en or em?

    (Which people are harassing the tilde? I think they should leave the poor little thing alone, too.)

  4. Tilde is pretty!!

    Word Doc looks after all my dashes. It doesn't like the em-dash, it demands and en - dash always. Dash it all!! LOL! take care

  5. I'm sure I read Joyce novel once where he seemed to use dashes where most people would have used speech quotation marks. Initially I thought it was annoying, but I got used to it. I mention it to make the point that these things are conventions and ideally, as a writer we should be doing what the readers find most acceptable.

  6. The Last Time They Met has all dialogue in italics, after a dash - and I HATE it. It's incredibly distracting to read.

    Kitty, just for you: ~ ~ ~ :o)

  7. Books in French (my native tongue) use a hyphen before dialogue (or em dash or en dash; too lazy to properly learn the difference and do people actually produce their rulers to measure these buggers?). There are NO quotes in French literature and the dialogue is never in italics. So it looks like this:

    - Zut alors! dit Jean.
    - Que veux-tu connard?!

    And as per your question Lexi, I'm not sure what Word does exactly. My problem is that a) sometimes I write by tapping it out and b) sometimes I write by using voice-recognition software. Therefore the formatting isn't consistent. Add to that the nuclear approach I use to format my ebooks and the result can be all over the place.

    Hence why I made up my own convention of using two dashes with a space before and after. Haven't had any complaints so far.

  8. I can't think of a reason I'd use a tilde in a novel, but I do like the look of that one. :)

  9. Steve, you crazy iconoclast, you! I'm fascinated by the voice recognition software - is it easier to write when you are reclining on a sofa, dictating? I'd like to try it. I believe Barbara Cartland used to do this, dressed to the nines, with a secretary writing it down.

    Lindsay, you and Kitty must start a tilde fan club...

  10. When attempting to study advanced maths, the tilde was my friend. As in 'yeah, the answer's ~1458...'
    How I did a job requiring accurate numeracy skills for so long is a matter to wonder at!


  11. First of K, LOL! You used to work for Enron, didn't you ;-)

    RE voice recognition software. They've come a long way. Ten years ago the recognition aspect was shaky. You could say "The Kennedy Secret is on sale this July for $.99" and it would come out as "That can of beans C. great is onset these Julep for 89 sense."

    Now, once you're properly set up, it hardly makes any mistakes. If you speak without pausing between words it'll be surprisingly accurate. You can even speak into a recorder and let the software transcribe it later. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking and I love it.

  12. There's a certain irony that both em-dash and en-dash are spelt using a hyphen.

    Style manuals are usually highly prescriptive about this stuff. The Orange Nemesis—otherwise known as the Chicago Manual of Style—is followed by almost all US publishers and states that breaks in the flow are to be separated by em-dashes with no surrounding white space, which is how I wrote this sentence. I'm okay with the em-dash, but I'm still in therapy to get over the lack of spaces fore and aft.

  13. Gary, everything about dashes is fraught with controversy, with everyone wedded to the way they are used to doing it. I came across 'em dash', 'M dash' and 'M-dash'.

    I'm impressed you managed to get proper dashes in your comment. How did you do that?

  14. Steve, I looked up Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and was tempted - it's very impressive - but I'd have to learn how to use it, and it costs $199.99.

  15. In HTML, — gives you an em-dash just like   gives you a non-breaking space. Or you can use the character code —

    But the easy way is to type an em-dash in Word and then copy it into the comment.

  16. Damn, I should have realized that wouldn't work. Let me try again...

    In HTML, &_mdash; gives you an em-dash just like &_nbsp gives you a non-breaking space. (Remove the _ to make it work).

    But the easy way is to type an em-dash in Word and then copy it into the comment

  17. Let me try that—hey, it works!

    Thanks, Gary.

  18. I've heard of M and N dashes but had no idea what they were!

  19. FH, as you know, no pains are too great for me to take where this blog is concerned. I'm so pleased my minutes of research on Wikipedia have served to enlighten you :o)

  20. Fascinating stuff as always, Lexi.

    ctrl/alt/delete in Word will give you an M-dash.

  21. Hmm - Greta, when I Ctl/Alt/Delete a window pops up, Window Task Manager, and shows two applications. Is it my laptop?

  22. Ooooh Greta that's mean! Yet funny... ;-)

    Lexi, Ctl/Alt/Delete is the standard computer reboot command. Luckily, these days Windows brings up Task Manager to verify what application you actually want to shut down. If you do it twice: automatic reboot.

  23. Ha! I'm too trusting, that's my trouble.