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.

Update: In the release version, Apple contextually replaces -- with — (em dash) to connect words when you type with or without spaces on either side. If you type a number and two hyphens, it turns into a – (en dash).

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.