Ode to the En Dash

Christmas, 2003 / No. 11

Pity the poor en dash. Never has a piece of punctuation been so noble and yet so misunderstood at the same time. Back in the day, when typesetters ruled magazine design, the en dash had power; the en dash had cachet. Since the dawn of desktop publishing, however, it seems anyone who can click a mouse fancies himself a designer. Unfortunately, these would-be art directors know little of the history of typography and even less in the ways of properly typesetting a page. Ironically, they also know very little about their own computer keyboard and its nuances. As a result, age-old practices, such as the use of the en dash, a piece of punctuation not granted its own special key, have fallen by the wayside.

For those readers unfamiliar with the en, it is the middle brother in a trio of dashes. On the short end of the spectrum is the oft-taken-for-granted hyphen. Slightly shorter than a mathematical minus sign, the hyphen’s two main functions are to join compound words (such as “co-op”) and to separate characters, such as in the case of phone numbers, serial numbers, and the like. It is also used as a divider when breaking a word over two lines of type.

On the opposite end is the oh-so-flexible em dash (also known simply as “the dash”). The em dash’s use is not dissimilar to that of parentheses or the comma. It is often found in pairs—setting off a parenthetical statement, such as this—or on its own, indicating a sudden break in a sentence.

In between these two powerhouses of punctuation, longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em, is the en dash, also with two main functions. First and foremost, the en dash is used to express a range, usually a numerical one (such as “pages 4–10” or “January 12–22,”), the idea being that, where a hyphen is used to separate numbers, an en dash is used to join them. But it is the en dash’s second use that is truly fascinating. The en dash may also be used in place of a hyphen to connect a prefix or suffix to an open compound (“post–Second World War” or “New York–based”), to connect two open compounds (“the Bloor Street–Danforth Avenue subway line”), or to connect two hyphenated compounds (“a quasi-good–quasi-evil plan”).

“Oh, but why be so fussy? ” you ask. “Couldn’t you just use a hyphen and be done with it? ” Yes, you could. But you’d be wrong. And it’s exactly that kind of lazy thinking that has nearly pushed the en dash into extinction. This summer, an article in the New York Times revealed that the editors of The Chicago Manual of Style, one of North America’s great style bibles, briefly flirted with the idea of removing the en dash from its recently published fifteenth edition. Thankfully, as the Times reported, “the idea was met with strong opposition.” Granted, few would blink an eye were you to use a hyphen in a number range, or even when connecting a prefix to an open compound—in fact, it’s done every day. But with such a strong, interesting piece of punctuation so easily at your grammatical disposal (Ctrl+Num+- on the PC; Option+- on the Mac), good Lord, why would you want to?

Sadly, not all magazines are created equal. Today, it is mainly the highbrow magazines such as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair that continue to fight the good fight on behalf of the en dash. And yet, there is a glimmer of hope in the knowledge that these magazines are also joined in battle by the somewhat lower-brow Entertainment Weekly. And what of Taddle Creek? As you may have guessed, Taddle Creek is a strong supporter of the en dash, and uses it often—eleven times in this very issue, in fact. (It has recently even convinced a sizable Canadian bi-weekly to follow suit.) And while the magazine does not blacklist any authors unversed in proper en dash usage, it happily encourages and educates them in the ways of this superb piece of punctuation, and will continue to do so until the en dash regains the respect it once held in the world of typography.

Vive le en dash!