Thursday, September 3, 2009

Good type matters (part 6): dashes

Type is the single most important graphic element on most pages (or slides, or webpages, or emails).

Use En-dashes.

Admittedly this is bordering on the typographically compulsive, but I do feel it’s important to know the difference. In ordinary use, there are three kinds of dashes:
  • Hyphen. Technically a punctuation mark, it is the shortest of the three and the thing on your Qwerty keyboard next to the zero. ( - ) It is used for hyphenated words (duh) an to break words over multiple lines (a task often done by your computer, but the best results require some human intervention).
  • En-dash. A little longer than the hyphen (an en-space, to be exact), it is used in modern typography to set off phrases – use it with a normal word space on either side.
  • Em-dash. The so-called long dash—it is rarely used in modern typography. You may still see it used, but to quote Robert Bringhurst: “The em-dash is the nineteenth-century standard, still prescribed in many editorial style books, but the em-dash is too long for the best text faces. Like the oversized space between sentences, it belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.”
Please note there is no double hyphen. The double hyphen was the typist’s indication when preparing manuscripts that a dash (probably an em-dash) should be set. Your typography will be more elegant if you unlearn this habit (or even easier, set Word and Powerpoint to replace “--” with “–” by going to Tools > Autocorrect > AutoFormat as You Type and select Symbol Characters with Symbols).

But as with quotation marks, consistency is more important than typographic rules. So if you are going to use double hyphens (or are assembling bits from people that do), then do so consistently. There are also times when a client or customer’s own style may call for using em-dashes instead of spaced en-dashes, so (obviously) one would follow the their style in such cases.

- - -

This is the last of these for now (I originally started with only three items). Typography is an art that some people study for a lifetime, and these suggestions are ridiculously simplified guidance for one minor aspect of it. Still, if the reader is interested in getting their audience to actually read what they write, these issues are a place to start. For those that want to know more, the de facto reference has become Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.

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