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.

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.

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.

The Magazine is making a book (again) and shutting down (what?!)

My labor of love the last two years has been The Magazine, first as its hired hand and then, in May 2013, as its owner. The sad truth has been that, while profitable from week one, the publication has had a declining subscription base since February 2013. It started at such a high level that we could handle a decline for a long time, but despite every effort — including our first-year anthology crowdfunded a bit under a year ago — we couldn't replace departing subscribers with new ones fast enough. We're a general-interest magazine that appeals to people who like technology, and that makes it very hard to market. "Pivoting" to a different editorial focus would have lost subscribers even faster. (Ads wouldn't work; we simply don't churn out enough content for that model. I wrote this a year ago and it's still true.)

So we lasted as long as we could while turning a buck so that I could make an increasingly smaller portion of my living from it, while enjoying the heck out of working with so many great writers and publishing stories about so many people and things, historical and present, geeky and sweet, sad and hilarious. It's been great.

Our last subscription issue will be December 17, 2014, after which we will discontinue and refund subscription on a pro-rated basis and may produce some ebooks or special projects thereafter.

Working cover of our Year Two anthology

Working cover of our Year Two anthology

But in the meantime, we're going to go out with a bang by producing another beautiful offset hardcover book drawn from our second year in publication, which we're celebrating today. Funding this Year Two book means we can pay all the writers reprint fees and get their work and the stories of people they tell out to a bigger audience, too.

Help us make this book by backing it and get a gorgeous hardcover book. You can even pledge at a patron or angel level and get signed copies — I and all the contributors will sign those editions.

We're also giving away the digital editions of the Year One book to help raise awareness of this new project, and we're pledging — if funded — to give away the digital editions of this new collection as well!

(Addendum: My friend Jeff Carlson wrote some kind words and filled in a few blanks that I forget about sometimes even though I run this darned thing.)

 

Approaching Halfway with Kickstarter

The Magazine: The Book is nearly at 50% of the goal we need to make it happen.

Kickstarter campaigns can follow a few arcs.

They can flatline, which is about 20% of them, last time I was able to get statistics. 20% of all projects approved by the company get no bids. Another 20% get less than one-fifth of the way to their goal amount. 16% of all projects fail between about 20% and 50% of the total amount they plan to raise.

But at the halfway mark, when you raised 50% of your total, the odds are pretty dramatic: 97% of Kickstarter projects that fund halfway proceed to fund fully by the end of the campaign.

We're about 48% of the way to our total, and I'm confident that, as we hit our last 12 days, we'll start to see some steam as people both see that it's coming to a close and it's not fully funded. It's an exciting thing, and daunting, and nail-biting. But we'll get there.

The campaign is to make a hardcover book of some of the wonderful stories that reporters and essayists wrote between October 2012 and October 2013 (and an ebook as well). The reward for pledging is the book! (And more.)

The campaign covers all the costs of paying for design, printing, shipping, and contributors, and will leave us with some print books left to sell and the ebook to offer online. It's a great way to run a project like this: to scale production with actual demand.

I'll admit that it's scary to sit here with about 33% of the time and 50% of the money left to go — but I also feel strongly about the stories in the book, the design that's being created for it, and the interest in making something cool and new that people will enjoy. Thanks for those of you who have backed the project already, and I hope those who haven't will consider jumping in to get a copy as soon as it's hot off the presses!

Editor and Publisher

The cow says Moogazine.

You may have already heard the news: I've purchased The Magazine from Marco. This is a great day in my professional life, as The Magazine is one of the very best things I've ever worked on. This is partly because Marco gave me an enormous amount of freedom in editing it, and partly because I get to work so closey with writers on their work.

I love writing, and have appreciated all the time and effort my editors have and continue to put into making my words work in the right order. It's great to work with both new writers and experienced ones to try to find the sculpture inside the block of marble.

It's been great working with Marco, who is an exceptionally decent human being, and overflows with different facets of creativity. He's been the art director, taking photos for the publication (he's got a great eye), and handled all the business side. A bunch of people have my back going forward, all spelled out in the press release and in the editor's note that's now on The Magazine's site.

It's also been quite fun working with his programming code. One of the challenges of the switchover is that I wanted to put into place a number of changes (coming in a few days) to the Web site, but didn't have the time to hire and direct someone. Dean Putney, who has worked for BoingBoing for years, will be my go-to guy for future significant improvements.

But during May, I revisited my weak and outdated PHP knowledge (I've been a perl guy forever), learned about model-view-controller frameworks, and developed a much more intimate knowledge of CSS and responsive design (Web design that works well on mobile, desktop, etc., without having custom sites for each type of screen).

It was a good challenge, and it made me think deeply about how we can improve the experience for readers as the publication has more and more articles in its archives and we add more features (podcast, blog entries, etc.). The Magazine has been superb for reading from day one; adapting it for managing what one has read is the next and great big challenge.

Typearama

Type Americana: Hands-On DayI had a lovely time at a two-day type conference at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle a couple weeks ago. One day of lectures, one day of hands-on workshops. It was heaven for me, as my first love is type and typography, but I was never accomplished enough to devote my life to it. That doesn't mean I can't love it. Day 1 was terrific, as I learned quite a bit about the history of foundries and a few prominent (and less known) designers. The last lecture of the day was by Sumner Stone, talking about his history in digital type design, telling some previously unknown stories, and showing pictures of associated folks. My late design teacher Alvin Eisenman was in a few shots, and my senior project adviser Min Wang, too. I found out Min is now the dean of a prestigious design school in Beijing! He was a modest and quiet man, but very talented. (My good friend Brian Wu worked with Sumner and Min as an intern at Adobe many many years ago.) I reminisced a bit with Sumner about the old days, as we have a lot of colleagues in common. Day 2 was split in half between two workshops: the first half was letterpress printing with wood type with folks from the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. That rekindled my desire to work with letterpress, and I've signed up for a 10-week course at SVC starting in January. The second half, we worked with Sumner to create a quick typeface from a simple starting point. Very interesting all around. I wrote up some thoughts about letterpress, including a young printer just starting out on her career, for BoingBoing. Pictures from Day 1 and Day 2 are at Flickr. The woman holding the Tomato in Concert poster is Megan Clark from Vancouver, Wash., who owns a design studio, and was my printing buddy for the Hamilton workshop. It was a hoot working with her: I had some letterpress background, and she had great ideas. My job was just to say, "yes, we should," and the results were great. Megan wrote up her experiences on her studio blog.