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The Seven Deadly Sins

Ask ten proofreaders or editors their seven pet hates, and no doubt you’ll end up with seventy rather than seven examples. In fact, we had quite an argument here at Sunset as we tried to narrow the list down to just seven! Here’s what we ended up with:

1. Lead/led

2. Everyday/Every day

3. It’s/Its

4. Alright/All right

5. Stationery/Stationary

6. Foreword/Forward

7. Separate/Seperate

Dashes and hyphens, ems and ens

Author: The Sunset Team

Back in the dim, dark days before personal computers and desktop publishing, most of the population had access only to mechanical typewriters, whereas typesetting was the domain of professionals in the graphic arts and publishing industries: compositors, typographers and editors.


The changing dash

The typist used non-proportional fonts, where every character had the same width. He or she therefore had access to only a single character to perform the functions of both hyphen and dash. To clarify the difference, it was standard typing practice to insert a space either side of the hyphen wherever it was meant to indicate a dash:

Before we knew it, James was racing up the lighthouse steps - all 247 of them!

There were other differences between the typist’s approach and that of the typesetter. For example, the typist would insert two spaces between sentences – again for clarity, given the constraints of non-proportional fonts.

The typesetter had no such constraints. He or she used proportional fonts which included separate characters for hyphens and dashes. Traditionally, a dash was indicated by an ‘em rule’ (originally based on the width of the ‘M’ character), more commonly called an ‘em dash’ these days. The dash would have no space either side because none was needed:

Before we knew it, James was racing up the lighthouse steps—all 247 of them!

This is still the way traditionalists do it, and in our opinion it is the correct way. Many authoritative style guides (for example, The Oxford Guide to Style and The Chicago Manual of Style) agree with us, but we are also aware that there are other authorities that do not. As the Australian publishing industry has now adopted the spaced ‘en rule’ (see below) as its standard, we have fallen into line, but it is important to understand how this change came about.

Desktop publishing brought many great changes. Even though the ‘em rule’ character existed in digital fonts from the very beginning, few personal computer users were aware it existed. Many were trained typists and, naturally enough, followed the conventions of their profession. Of course, traditional typesetters threw up their hands in horror, but the times were indeed a-changing. The old ‘compositor’ trade is pretty much dead these days, and most people coming into the graphic design industry are being taught in a college system where ignorance of typographical conventions is the norm.

In printed matter, it is therefore not unusual to see space-hyphen-space where a dash should be used. While we don’t wish to give offence, we must state quite bluntly that using a spaced hyphen as a dash is the mark of an amateur. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that this is one trend that has become widespread enough to have an effect even on professionals. For better or worse, the response of typographers and editors has been a kind of compromise, with the closed-up em rule approach gradually giving way to a spaced em rule:

Before we knew it, James was racing up the lighthouse steps — all 247 of them!

or, very commonly these days in book and magazine publishing, a spaced en rule:

Before we knew it, James was racing up the lighthouse steps – all 247 of them!

The en rule (originally based on the width of the ‘N’ character) is half the width of the em rule. We’ll have more to say on its uses in a moment.

Quite often, when a spaced em rule is used as a dash, the spaces are narrower than normal – usually hair spaces or thin spaces, depending on the software being used, or on the preference of the particular typographer or publisher. (We won’t show an example here, as not all Web browsers support the HTML code for a thin space.)

Despite the traditional preference for the em rule (either closed-up or thin-spaced), there is no doubt that the spaced en rule has gained a fair degree of acceptance in the publishing industry – helped along by the fact that Microsoft Word automatically replaces space-hyphen-space with space-‘en dash’-space (unless this function is disabled in the program’s preferences). While accepting this trend, it is also necessary to keep in mind that the en rule has its own specific uses. Before we look at the en rule, however, we should briefly outline the use of the dash itself.

Where to use dashes

Dashes can be used to indicate a more emphatic pause in a sentence than a comma would provide (we have used it this way several times in the course of this article). It can also be used to enclose a phrase in the same way that parentheses might, but again the intention would be to draw more attention to the phrase than parentheses would provide:

I didn’t go to the door – I was afraid to – but instead hid in my room.

It can also take the place of a colon. For example, we could have used a dash instead of a colon in this article’s opening sentence:

. . . typesetting was the domain of professionals in the graphic arts and
publishing industries – compositors, typographers and editors.

If there is one thing that needs to be said about dashes, it is this: don’t overuse them. Many writers are far too ‘dash-happy’ and seem unaware of the jarring effect a page full of dashes has on their readers.


The en rule

Up until the advent of desktop publishing and the spaced en rule’s acceptance as a dash, the en rule had several clearly defined roles.

It was most commonly used to take the place of the word ‘to’ in the following senses:

Copenhagen–London
2.5–4.8 kHz
1999–2003
Copenhagen to London
2.5 to 4.8 kHz
1999 to 2003

This is true to this day, and all informed designers, typesetters, editors and proofreaders follow this convention. Hyphens are never used by professionals for this role. Keep in mind, however, that in mathematical typesetting it is a very good idea to use the word ‘to’ in such cases rather than an en rule, in order to avoid confusion with minus signs.

There also exist other, albeit less common uses for the en dash, such as the following:

pre–Second World War
shock-wave–boundary-layer interaction

In the first example, a hyphen would be used if we were simply typing ‘pre-war’; however, because the ‘pre’ is meant to relate to all three spaced words in combination, an en dash is used to indicate the fact.

While a hyphen is normally used in compound adjectives (for example, ‘boundary-layer interaction’), in the second example above we are dealing with two compound adjectives which are themselves joined; in such a case it is preferable to use an en dash at the junction (as shown) and not another hyphen.

It is also good practice to use an en dash rather than a hyphen for any compound adjective where the parts have equal weight:

true–false questionnaire
question–answer format


The minus sign

For everyday purposes, it is considered acceptable to use an en rule to indicate a minus sign; however, it should be noted that in many fonts the plus sign and the en rule do not have the same width. For this reason, it is preferable to use a dedicated math symbol font such as Symbol or Mathematical Pi for mathematical or scientific work. Mathematical Pi is a family of fonts which includes every mathematical symbol yet devised, while the more basic Symbol font has all the more common symbols (the font MT Extra can be used to add a few more) and is adequate for most purposes.

Incidentally, em rules are always used for dashes in mathematical and scientific publications, because a space-‘en dash’-space would be too readily confused with a minus sign.


The hyphen

This article has mentioned the hyphen mainly in a negative sense; that is, we have provided several examples of where not to use it. This has been intentional. Hyphenation is such an important subject – and such a poorly understood one – that it really deserves its own page. Stay tuned.

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