Dash-dash it all! Apple’s bad beta decision on em and en dashes

Terrible news. Apple is replacing the long-running convention of typing two hyphens to obtain an em dash or “long dash.” That is, if you type --, many places in the interface in which autocorrection is enabled or third-party software takes advantage of autocorrection, it’s turned into —.

Instead, two hyphens become the shorter en dash, or –, which you may never have heard of if you’re not a print or Web designer or otherwise interested in the intricacies of formatting things. To get an em dash, you will have to type ---, a convention that also appears in TeX, a mathematical formatting language developed by Donald Knuth.

Why is this terrible news? Some have argued with me on Twitter that it’s more logical: - for hyphen, -- for the longer en dash, and --- for the longest em dash. You type more hyphens to get a longer dash.

My rejoinder is twofold. First, most people rarely use an en dash, although I’d like to increase that number. Second, a billion people have learned that typing -- leads to a long dash. I may be exaggerating the number, but given that Microsoft Word,* Pages, and other desktop software performs this substitution silently, it’s a widespread convention being overturned.

I’d therefore argue this is inefficient, confusing, and inconsistent. If one wants an em dash, one is now forced to type or tap three characters rather than two. It’s confusing, because typing two hyphens will no longer produce the expected result for those paying attention. It’s inconsistent, because it’s unlikely that nearly every other piece of software in use other than TeX that offers an autocorrection for -- will change its behavior to match Apple’s.

The long dash also has a particular visual identity that provides the eye with a cue to take a long mental pause, one that's not nearly long enough with the en dash.

If you're not familiar with the difference among these dashes, the simple explanation for standard American usage is:

  • A hyphen, -, separates words in phrases, as in “least-used product” and is used for line breaks in books and other matter. (There’s an exception for some compounds; see below.)
  • An em dash, —, is used to set off a phrase—one in the middle of the sentence—that’s not quite a parenthetical, but it isn’t so germane as to be set off by commas. It’s also used as a sort of pause to emphasize something—something important at the end of a sentence. 
  • An en dash, –, separates ranges for dates, numbers, and quantities—like 9–5 and January–August. It’s also used for certain kinds of connections, directions, and contrasts, such as standing in for “versus” in Lincoln–Douglas debates or in place name pairing like Alsace–Lorraine, where both are separate places being referred to together. (You can read a more elaborate explanation here.) 

The inestimable Butterick’s Practical Typography, which you should memorize, has more typographic detail. On a Mac, type an en dash as Option-hyphen and an em dash as Option-Shift-hyphen. In iOS, long press the hyphen and pick the option to its right for an en dash and to the right of that lies the em dash.

This change appears in the beta release of iOS 11, so it may not wind up in the final version later this year.

A few miscellaneous em notes

What makes this more confusing is that in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, typographic conventions shifted, and an en dash with a full word space on either side is frequently used instead of an em dash! Thus our English-speaking cousins have no complaint. My * above references that Word turns [any character]--[any character] into —, but if you type [space]--[space], Word follows the non-U.S. format and changes the hyphens to an en dash.

An em was traditionally the width of the height of a font, forming a square metal piece, which roughly corresponded to the letter M in that font, and is a standard unit of typographic measurement. An em dash eventually became as wide as a H rather than an M. An en was once exactly half an em. Spacing in metal type was measured as X to an em, like “3 to an em,” or as X-em spaces, meaning three of those spaces added up to the same width as an em.

Screenshot 2017-07-06 18.01.23.png

An em dash often has a hair space (anything less than 5 to an em) or slightly larger on either space to set it off from text. A manual from 1887 notes, “In using an em dash, a hair space should always be placed on each side of it in book work, which gives it a neat and clean appearance in print.” It may be set these days with no spacing at all or a full word space, neither of which looks right to me in print, but works better online.

The Atlantic ran a story in 2016 that misidentified the en space. The writer mistook the en space (2 to an em) for any word space. The proper word space in metal-type days was 3 to an em for normal text.

Typesetters in the olden days were paid "by the em," meaning they were paid a fee for how much they set in a given font, no matter the size, which caused all sorts of complications.

The past was also full of bad jokes.

The past was also full of bad jokes.

In older usage, three em dashes in a row indicated a redaction, like omitting someone’s name in the press. This survives as a Unicode character (&#11835)! (Unfortunately, not every font has the glyph, so you may not see it in the next paragraph.)

In a sentence, it might appear as, “Mr M⸻ of Green Bay told Miss B⸻ of Bowling Green that the check was in the mail.” I found a wonderful example from 1852 of someone speaking aloud the term “three em dashes” either due to a typesetting error (a direction to the compositor to use three em dashes was misunderstood) or as a verbalization of punctuation.

From A Manual of the Typewriter: A Practical Guide to Commercial Literary Legal Dramatic and All Classes of Typewriting Work 

From A Manual of the Typewriter: A Practical Guide to Commercial Literary Legal Dramatic and All Classes of Typewriting Work 

Typewriting and typesetting have distinctly different paths and purposes, though practical machine typesetting and practical typewriters became possible at around 1880. Typewriting manuals told typists how to prepare business correspondence, but also how to type copy intended to be typeset and copy that emulated typesetting. Two hyphens for a long dash dates back to at least the 1890s.

Letterpress, in-app tracking, QR Codes, and more recent writing

For those interested in finding my recent articles, I like to publish an occasional summary. Here’s a selection from the last few weeks:

Meanwhile, did you know I’m available for hire as an editor, both for publications and individuals? I wrote about the kind of work I do and my experience. Give me an email jingle.

In my “spare” time, I’m letterpress printing a book. You can read more about it in my book progress blog.

I held Walt Whitman’s hand today

Through a series of circumstances and research I’ll explain later, I was at the University of Washington library's Special Collections Book Arts and Rare Book Collection, meeting its curator. Unrelated to the topic at hand, I ask offhandedly if they have any Whitman. In fact, they have a very fine concentration of Whitman editions, including a first edition of a book I have particular interest in, November Boughs, which he published in 1888 after his health broke.

She pulled three editions, including that first one, and said there was something special: Whitman had written an inscription and signed it. (J.G. Milligan appears to be a fellow Brooklynite of Whitman’s from my quick research.)

I always think of these kinds of links from one person to the next: having held a book the edition of which Whitman not only wrote and for which he supervised the printing, but also held this particular copy, it's like forging a connection back to his time. He's no longer such a distant historical figure.

Books and Movies about Graphic Design History and Typesetting

I just saw the movie Graphic Means last night at its world premiere, and I am so excited about it. It’s about the history of graphic design production during the transition from the hot metal era to high-quality digital output. I worked part-time as a typesetter from around 1984 to 1989, and then as a compositor, imaging center supervisor, color separator, and graphic designer part- to full-time from 1989 through the late ’90s. I lived through this transition, in which major changes could happen every few months. It was delightful to see that period so well explained, and learn a lot of new things, including how phototypesetting was opposed by unions and how it provided an entrée for women into the printing world.

Graphic Means is in limited theatrical release before it goes to digital downloads and DVDs. So I have recommendations for other books and movies:

  • Shady Characters, a wonderful history of punctuation marks and other parts of type that we use and may have some idea of where they came from. It arose from a blog of the same name. Delightful book, and despite my nerdery about type, I didn’t know most of what was in it.
  • The Book, by the same author, traces the history of the book as a thing. Again, learned so much despite thinking I knew a fair amount of book history.
  • Linotype: The Movie traces the history of this most remarkable mechanical invention that sped up the transmission and production of the printed word manyfold, and had a good 80-year run before we get into the period covered in Graphic Means. They’re neatly bookended, and the Linotype director was a mentor to Graphic Means’ director.
  • Making Faces: Metal Type in the 21st Century, a movie I purchased years ago and somehow managed to never watch! I'm rectifying it soon, and I’m told it’s great.

I’ll be looking through my collection and adding to this.

A quarter’s worth of printing

The collected work from my first quarter at the School of Visual Concepts as its designer in residence from the three courses I took. From upper-left, clockwise:

  • A broadside (poster) as part of a workshop focused on Copper Canyon Press poets’ works that related to water (part of a set of eight). The workshop was taught by Ellie Matthews of the North Press in Port Townsend.
  • A broadside celebrating The Incomparable network of podcasts, where I’m a regular panelist and a host, using elements from its logo and an inside joke about a fake city name. 
  • A greeting card that I chose the theme of fireworks and celebration. The skyline is from a photo I took in Cal Anderson Park; the fireworks from a picture I took from my home's balcony a few July 4ths ago.

The spring quarter starts this week, and I’ll be taking a single course as I accelerate the preparation for letterpress printing a book this summer.

You can still become a patron of my letterpress book project

My project to letterpress print a book of my reporting on type, printing, and punctuation reached its funding goal weeks ago and then finished out a couple weeks back. All 100 copies of the book have been spoken for, though I am working up plans to produce a few special copies sales of which I'll donate 100% of the proceeds to causes that need help right now.

However, those who want to still come in as patrons at the two lower levels offered in the Kickstarter campaign are very welcome. 

  • Ebook-only reward ($15). Receive an ebook that contains the full text of the letterpress edition plus articles I write over the next several months about producing the book. (Link to book ships by August 2017.)
  • Keepsake plus ebook ($30). Receive a letterpress-printed keepsake I make that will be interesting to look at, hold, and share with others, and the ebook edition. (Keepsake ships by June 2017.)

You can use this simple ecommerce page to pledge at those levels. As with Kickstarter, you'll be charged immediately and I plan to deliver the goods by the above dates, and communicate any delays in the meantime.

Letterpress project funded!

Fireworks! (on a photopolymer printing plate)

Fireworks! (on a photopolymer printing plate)

Thanks so much to everyone who backed my "Hands On" project — and those who sent good wishes and moral support!

With the funding in place, I'll be moving on to next steps, and post a message to backers with the site information to follow the book’s progress. I’ll be posting some updates and photos publicly, and others just for those underwriting this project.

Upcoming steps will be working further on a preliminary design to have test plates made from which I can print on various paper under consideration and then finalize the design. I'll post sketches and results when interesting. I’ve committed to writing one more article for the book (about the Georgian language’s treatment of capitals), and need to flesh out another, on printer’s devils — aided by meeting someone whose husband worked as one as a teenager several decades back.

Alongside design, I’ll be working on adapting and creating illustrations for the book. I have some drawn illustrations already, and will need to convert photos and work up art for others. I’ll create a printing plan, that will help me sort out in advance how to approach aspects of printing this many pages.

And, as noted before, I’m hoping to have a 2D printer before the book is far into production, allowing I hope some interesting design work on interior pages and the cover. I’ll be researching bindings soon as I think about what unique treatment the book can have as a wrapper.

Thanks again, and more details coming soon.

Free Speech Isn't Free-of-Consequences Speech

In a lot of discussions about free speech in America, typically referring to the First Amendment, I've seen what feels like conflation of several different ideas into one concept, leading to the use of strawmen to avoid actual discussion, often unintentionally. I'm not a constitutional scholar, but from decades of reading and recent court cases, I can tease apart the separate issues.

Give me some runway to define the situation before I get to the heart: consequences to speakers who engage in extreme speech.

Government-run institutions, whether at a local or federal level, can't pick and choose the speech they allow. That's the fundamental bedrock of free expression in America: in whatever fora are available in which some people may speak (or simply be), the government cannot choose among various kinds of expression and choose which is acceptable and which isn't. The sole exception is a sub-category of hate speech, in which the statements or actions will credibly lead to the imminent incitement to "lawless action." (The Supreme Court set this test in Brandenburg v. Ohio.)

This comes up routinely when governments attempt to create "free-speech areas" far from the subject of a protest, limit or control artistic expression in public spaces and buildings in which other forms of art are fine, or at a college that tries to block a visitor, speaker, or instructor on the basis of what they have said in the past or reportedly plan to say.

This can seem awful. Why should a hate group like the KKK (which now exists as dozens of fractured groups) be allowed to march, hold a rally, speak on a campus, or distribute flyers when they have a history of inciting violence? Books have been written about why it is (or why it shouldn't be), but it's the state of how things are and reflects how courts will handle disputes.

It's also noted by the ACLU, seen as a stalwart of protecting left-wing speech, that it defends the KKK and others both on general principles, but also because it consistency finds that the rights it wins in courts in those cases it later uses in defense of liberal principles, too. As the ACLU has written, "[T]he Supreme Court’s decision in 1969 in Brandenburg v. Ohio upholding free speech for the KKK was the principal decision relied upon by a lower court the following year in overturning the conviction of Benjamin Spock for opposing the draft."

(We also don't have a rule of prior restraint in America, which is censorship before the fact. The government can't prohibit a book from being published because of concepts it contains that might be subject to criminal charges or civil action. An exception is granted for national security, and it gets very murky. Private parties can't bypass this by suing to prevent the release of material, because they must rely on the courts and government intervention, producing the same effect. I bring this up for a point later.)

Those who follow norms of civil discourse can't win when confronted with those who have no concern about adverse outcomes. The primary confusion I see in discussions is the conflation of following constitutional edicts with endorsement of speech. This regularly (but, honestly, not that frequently) comes to the fore on college campuses, because they tend not just to encourage lots of different kinds of discussion, but also have students, staff, and faculty who want to bring in views contrary to the prevailing campus attitudes.

This came up with Milo Yiannopoulos' recent "Dangerous Faggot" tour, the title of which was even intended to stretch the limits of acceptable speech in reporting on it. Yiannopolous is a provocateur, who has no fixed opinions — it's possible to find several contradictory ones among any few year period — and has profited well from his current extreme right-wing, white-supremacy-adjacent position.

Because colleges allowed other speakers, there was no effective way to bar Yiannopolous, even though he had previously released information during talks harmful to people on campus, had violence break out at speeches (sometimes between protesters and counter-protesters), and had announced his intention to release damaging information about students at UC Berkeley. Colleges sometimes try to present a bill for security or have security requirements for groups bringing in speakers, but these seem to not pass a smell test, either, from what I've read, as they discourage speech.

UC Berkeley couldn't win. It was a clear constitutional violation to bar him from speaking, but allowing him to speak could have caused harm to students. In most cases, people don't engage in this kind of speech, because of the potential for consequences.

Freedom of speech isn't freedom from criticism of that speech. A requirement to adhere to the First Amendment doesn't muzzle anyone. UC Berkeley's Chancellor, for instance, released a statement that included this: "In our view, Mr. Yiannopoulos is a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to 'entertain,' but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas."

The university can't restrict protests and counter-protests under the same guidelines. As disruptive as it might be, free speech isn't so much better served by more speech (a common trope), but by the robust encouragement of speech. That is, the trope suggests we should hear as many terrible ideas as we can, so that exposed to light they shrivel up. I'd rather say that terrible speech should be heard in order to bring together opposition to that speech with the clarity of why it is wrong. (This happens in opposite, too: an inclusive speaker being protested by bigots often rallies counter-protesters and a reinforcement of inclusivity.)

Berkeley has to allow Yiannopoulos to speak because the institution invites speakers and allows organizations to allow speakers, but they don't have to stifle speech in opposition to his — nor can they stifle counter-protests to those protests. That's one consequence.

Freedom of speech doesn't provide you commercial fora. Yiannopoulos has a book contract with Simon & Schuster, which ostensibly will be a Bill Maher-style humorous takedown of political correctness that doesn't include the kind of hate speech he routinely engages in. It might be less offensive, in fact, than the typical Ann Coulter book. Maher had Yiannopoulos on his show recently, in a widely condemned move. CPAC (at this writing) has him featured as the keynote presenter at an event dedicated to conservative principles.

Threats of boycotts against Simon & Schuster do not equate to silencing him, despite the efforts to paint it that way by a surprising number of publishers, free-speech groups, and his agent. Our rights in the U.S. prevent the government from preventing your book being published, including threatening publishers that might produce it. It doesn't guarantee your terrible ideas turn into a book contract, nor that a publisher, once offering the contract, doesn't tear it up. (Update: Simon & Schuster canceled the contract.) (The publisher could be sued, conceivably, if it cancels the contract in a way that breaches its terms.) Maher can uninvite Yiannopoulos with equal impunity. CPAC can likewise cancel his speech. (Update: It did.)

These are all the consequences of free speech. Yiannopoulos can publish in other ways, including self-publishing, finding another publisher, or even buying a high-volume laser printer and get the results trimmed and bound and selling the book on street corners and via mail order. All of those actions are protected from government interference. He can use the Internet to spread his ideas, as he has long done, and companies can ban him from their services, as Twitter did, without banning him from the Internet. (Commercial Internet providers work within a form of common carrier laws that immunize them against data that passes over them in exchange for them not interfering with it.)

(About prior restraint, above: Simon & Schuster has whatever rights to review his work before it goes into print; that's not prior restraint. The government can't oversee it or prevent its publication, though a successful libel lawsuit afterwards could have the consequence of the publisher pulling it from sale.) 

Consequences of civil disobedience and violence. Constitutionally protected free speech also isn't immune from extra-legal responses by individuals and groups, which is where police and courts get involved. A group might choose to prevent Yiannopoulos' speech by barricading entries and screaming to prevent him from being heard. That's a civil act and could result in arrest. The people engaged in civil disobedience can't carp if they suffer a consequence from denying speech; many revel in it, showing the flaws in a system that has no fetters, and many examples of civil disobedience changed the world.

People may also choose to engage in violence. The "punch a Nazi" meme that has been rolling around since white-supremacist Richard Spencer was punched while giving a video interview must be paired with the notion that the assailant could be arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to jail for their actions. That, again, is a consequence and some people may choose what they believe is the moral high ground of assault knowing the potential outcome of incarceration.

Campus disinvitation is not frequent, but it's used to score political points. The number of times people try to bar speakers from campuses with any kind of organized or substantive effort is relatively few, usually focused on a few individuals, who are often on the far right, but sometimes on the far left. These incidents are blown up out of proportion by those who are often far less extreme members of the same ideology to use as political props.

One group, FIRE, has tracked this since 2000, and has over 300 incidents involving substantially fewer people — for instance, William (Bill) Ayers has been the subject of eight disinvitation attempts, half successful. FIRE defines disinvitation broadly, so this includes institutions asking someone to not come, people withdrawing their attempt to speak, and people being unable to speak while present. Only about half of the attempts in the database were successful, but about 2/3rds of attempts were from left-leaning groups.

You don't have to smile and agree. One additional point related to the recent Washington State Supreme Court decision that a florist who provides flowers for weddings cannot choose to discriminate against protected classes, whether by race, gender, marital status or others. In this case, a florist who routinely did flowers for a gay couple declined to do their wedding arrangements, citing her religion.

The florist maintains that her arrangements are protected artistic expression under the First Amendment, as are her religious beliefs. In a statement, she said, "The state is trying to use this case to force me to create artistic expression that violates my deepest beliefs and take away my life’s work and savings, which will also harm those who I employ. I’m not asking for anything that our Constitution hasn’t promised me and every other American: the right to create freely, and to live out my faith without fear of government punishment or interference."

But her statement muddles principles, which is a reason the court found so strongly against her: "Public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined."

She can make all the flowers she wants and have any religious belief she wants. She simply cannot choose in a commercial setting using a discriminatory filter about who to serve. She wants to have her cake (well, flowers) and eat it, too: to be able to apply personal beliefs in a secular realm. This is just as clearcut as if she wouldn't create bouquets for black people, but would for everyone else. (You can refuse service for all kinds of other legitimate reasons, they just have to be applied to everyone.)

But there's one bit of this story that was missed. Public accommodation laws don't require that the people operating a service have to suppress their personal beliefs in providing service, so long as they don't act in a discriminatory fashion or express hate against a class in a way that would constitute that in effect. (As I understand this, of course.)

The florist can, for instance, openly discuss her religious beliefs with customers, as little as many might want to hear them. She isn't stifled. She's not required to smile. She's not required to agree with her customers about their beliefs. She doesn't have to put a rainbow flag in her window.