August 07, 2003

Dash it all

The 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style has been published. Yee-haw, Susie Mae! Saddle the mule. We're headin' to town!

According to the New York Times, the world has narrowly avoided disaster:

Not surprisingly, given the passionate nature of editors, there were disagreements along the way. A big one, Ms. Samen said, was about hyphens and dashes. There are three kinds. The biggest are "em" dashes [...] The middle-size or "en" dashes [...] The smallest, the hyphens, are used in compound words like "a tie-in for a television show."

Maybe it was time, Ms. Samen suggested, to retire the middle-size one. It wasn't necessary anymore, she said, and it didn't aid comprehension. But no. Ms. Samen's idea was met with strong opposition from people on the Internet discussion groups. Finally, in an e-mail message (spelled with a hyphen in the Chicago Manual), Ms. Samen capitulated.

"I surrender!" she wrote to another editor. "I'm the only managing editor on the planet who does not looooove the en dash!"

I have always found that the em dash just looks way too hefty in most typesetting work. I prefer an en dash (–) with extra space around it – to the em dash (—) with or without space. The actual space used is, well, discussable. In the old days (sonny), we used to use the thin space on Mergenthaler systems. But now I just positive kern the dashed thing until it feels right.

In "real" type:

I prefer the bottom setting. In display type, as here, there is a need for the shorter dash to keep the white space becoming too massive. But in text settings, the appearance of a massive white hole breaking up the grey of the type can be equally annoying. Especially since modern writing seems to thrive on the dash, whether to simulate disjunction or just as a crutch for a lack of grammatical imagination.

I have always suspected (but haven't verified by experiment or research) that the original lead em dashes may have been set on an em body, but had a small shoulder to allow the type to stand away from the adjacent characters. (And the type designer just fudged it to look right, in the best tradition of the craft.) When phototypesetting came in, someone (Mergenthaler) just created an em dash that was edge-to-edge on the em dimension, with no shoulder. Thus, the modern monstrosity.

I don't have any lead em dashes lying around, but my 1923 American Type Founders specimen book shows a gorgeous 14pt Bodoni setting with a dash that looks more like a modern 10pt em dash. This is larger than a 14 pt modern em (7 pt). That's why the added space looks about right, spacing it to a dimension about 70% of the em

There is one case where I prefer the em dash. In financial table settings where there is a null value column, typists use a double hyphen. An em dash holds better in comparison to the numbers. Usually. Again, depends on the font — and the number of digits in the table.

For a discussion on this and other typographic niceties, see A List Apart. Peter K. Sheerin details the "official" application of all the dashes, which I have already admitted to ignoring. (Of course, on my computer, the em dashes in that article all look exactly like the en dashes, rendering the whole discussion moot.)

Sheerin also promotes the correct HTML codes for a bevy of dashes, etc. Worth learning. I have taken the pledge to only use proper codes (rather than the — that I often fall back on when typing).

Best quote from a friend about the whole flap: "She must be attaching too much meaning to length — but that's a woman for you."

Posted by campbell at August 7, 2003 06:22 PM | TrackBack