M-dash versus N-dash – who will win?

21 August, 2012

Bound to be controversial 😀

En dash versus em dash

The en dash is wider than the hyphen but not as wide as the em dash. An em width is defined as the point size of the currently used font, since the M character is not always the width of the point size. In running text, various dash conventions are employed: an em dash—like so—or a spaced em dash — like so — or a spaced en dash – like so – can be seen in contemporary publications.

Various style guides and national varieties of languages prescribe different guidance on dashes. Dashes have been cited as being treated differently in the US and the UK, with the former preferring the use of an em-dash with no additional spacing, and the latter preferring a spaced en-dash. As an example of the US style, The Chicago Manual of Style still recommends unspaced em dashes. Style guides outside of the US tend to diverge from this guidance. For example, the Canadian The Elements of Typographic Style recommends the spaced en dash – like so – and argues that the length and visual magnitude of an em dash “belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.” In the United Kingdom, the spaced en dash is the house style for certain major publishers, including the Penguin Group, the Cambridge University Press, and Routledge. But this convention is not universal. The Oxford Guide to Style (2002, section 5.10.10) acknowledges that the spaced en dash is used by “other British publishers”, but states that the Oxford University Press—like “most US publishers”—uses the unspaced em dash.

The en dash—always with spaces in running text—and the spaced em dash both have a certain technical advantage over the un-spaced em dash. …

 

As Australia tends to British rather than US customs – and there is a monopoly that essentially prohibits retailers from importing US books – I recall seeing the m-dash on the printed page only once in my life. It looked very strange to me. I still don’t like it – rather than separating words, it seems to draw them together like an extended hyphen. It also seems visually less “airy” than the UK format, somehow more oppressive on the eye.

The m-dash is rarely seen on the internet, except on websites of certain highbrow US magazines, used in an effort to duplicate the look of the printed version. The n-dash might appear then to have won – except that it is very often (almost always?) substituted with the hyphen, which is easier to type. Deceptively, WordPress is smart enough to understand my usage and correct it as required.
 

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