Hyphens, Ens, and Ems


I think most designers have an inner control freak somewhere deep inside them. I know I do. And when it comes to the misuse of dashes, I kinda go off the deep end. Let me explain.

Beautifully set type should enhance the written word and not make it difficult for the reader. But most people, whether they like it or not, who use a computer have become de facto typesetters. And sorry to say, but a computer doesn’t come with a design degree.

I came to appreciate the differences and nuances of the much-used and much-abused dash – either the hyphen, en, or em – after I first read Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style in 1994. If you only have one book about typography, then this should be the one.

Here is a short primer on what symbol to use where:

Hyphens (-) are short, thick, and blunt, and are about a quarter of an em dash. They are used between telephone numbers (1-902-425-1939) and compound words (tax-payer).

En (–) and em dashes (—) are used in many instances and are often misused. An em dash is equal to two en dashes in width. The longer em dash is a nineteen-century standard and I agree with Bringhurst in that it is too long to be used in most cases.

Used as a phrase marker – like this – the en dash is perfect with a space on either side.

Used as a phrase marker—the em dash without spaces crowds the text and doesn’t leave any breathing room for the text. To me, the em dash is like a sharp pointy stick that is about to impale the adjacent words.

Closed-set en dashes (an en without a space on either side) are also used between digits to indicate a range: 25–30 minutes

You might not give a flying dingbat about these typographic details. But we do. We love to look at the whole big idea for our clients, but we also are incredibly detail-oriented. Feel free to send us your manuscripts – we’d be happy to whip them into shape for you.