70 Comments

  1. Maybe the dagger, †? It’s a typographical mark, typically used as a footnote call when the asterisk has already been used. Wikipedia says it is also used to indicate death or extinction. While it is not, strictly speaking, punctuation, the marks on display include the number sign #, so apparently the dagger could also fit in this company.

  2. @ Powers – I actually thought it would be “en-dash”, but either way, it’s more than a little confusing that such a similar-looking character suddenly comes in from the “other” side (to stab “colon” in the back).†

    P.S. The link attached to the hovertext (above the comic) doesn’t work for me, so I have added it here. The text in the “bonus” panel (on the SMBC website) reads “All for em dash-all!

    P.P.S. † – Normally one would think that “colon” and “semicolon” would always get stabbed in the guts, not the back.

  3. @ Andréa – An “em dash” is the typographer’s name for a long dash, named so because it was once approximately the width of the character “M” in most fonts. An “en dash” is shorter (the width of an “N”), but usually longer than the ordinary “hyphen”.

  4. P.S. Sorry, I was partially right about the length of the “en dash”, but the “em” in “em dash” is the same length as the font’s height. The “en dash” is either 1/2 “em”, or the width of a capital “N”.

  5. Powers, I think that’s too long to be a hyphen. It’s pretty clearly a dash (em-dash).

    The situation is, however, muddied a bit by a change in typing conventions that has taken place somewhat independently from the changes in punctuation habits that the cartoon is mostly dealing in. Long ago, when typing was limited to a single monospaced font, there were standard ways of indicating in typescript that the printed / typeset final product should have some feature – like underscoring to indicate italics. The typewriter had hyphen but not en-dash or en-dash (nor for that matter a minus sign distinct from those). So to indicate an emdash, the convention was to type two–or maybe three!–consecutive hyphens, with no space characters separating them from the adjacent text.

    But later – now that people are typing electronic text all the time and often can input actual italics or boldface, the conventions are less necessary, and hence less taught and less followed in practice. So among the casual variant practices there have grown, an emdash is often typed as a single hyphen, with a blank space on either side. Or maybe — though less commonly — two hyphen characters in a row but separated from adjacent text by spaces. (I’ve illustrated all three methods in this and the previous paragraph.)

    So there has been some popular conflation of hyphen and dash. But in the cartoon the miscreant is too long to be a hyphen and must be a dash.

  6. Lost and Usual John, I’m sure you’re right about the cartoon centering on the complaint about the changing punctuation style of using a dash (em-dash of course) instead of period or semicolon to separate / link two clauses. (Not the other matter of typing hyphen to indicate dash.)

    And indeed that must be a typographic dagger. Until you pointed that out I was just calling it a knife and wondering why it’s placement seemed so awkward.

  7. Yes, well, I saw the use of the dagger but missed the larger point—which I now think is pretty funny—that the dashes are using the dagger to supplant other punctuation. All credit goes to Lost in A**2 for that.

    Hey, do you suppose that having typographic marks in their username was an unfair advantage for Lost in A**2?

  8. Andrea, in the world of actual typesetting, there were as mentioned three distinct things, two sizes of dash and their even shorter relative, the hyphen. The two lengths of dash were supposed to be the same as the width of a lowercase m in the same face (for the longer one) or a lowercase n (for the shorter). Spoken aloud those would be an em or an en in length, hence em-dash and en-dash.

    What we call just dash would be an em-dash. The en-dash has just a few special uses, and is likely to be confused with a hyphen more than with the em-dash. The en-dash is used mostly for ranges. The Great War took place 1914-1918. We don’t have a good way of typing en-dash so I just typed a hyphen but that kind of range traditionally used the mid-size en-dash.

    Another use of en-dash according to some, is to indicate broken-off speech instead of completing a sentence. I think that is why someone here was suggesting that dashes are also supplanting ellipses.

  9. “. . . why it’s placement seemed so awkward.”

    That apostrophe’s placement is awkward ‘-)

    Thanks Andrea. Auto-correct got the best of me there, as I was kept busy undoing its “corrections” throughout my paragraph distinguishing en-dash and em-dash where it only wanted to see the latter.

  10. @ Mitch – I’m amused that you cited almost exactly the same lengths that I had at first (lowercase “m” and “n”), but after thinking about it, I realized that the actual sizes must be related to the height of the font, because the width definition that we both remembered fails for monospaced fonts.

    P.S. Those guides give good tips on usage, but the Wikipedia article (see 7:53 am) gives better information on comparative lengths: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash

  11. Hubby was a typesetter at a print shop in his younger days.

    I started typing when I got an F in handwriting in sixth grade (ah, yes, the days of the manual typewriter, graduating to an Olivetti Electric), but I switched over to computer typing easily, dropping all the ‘rules’, like double space after a period, etc., etc. Being a touch typist certainly has come in handy since the computer age began, and when I became a webauthor in 1996.

  12. “dropping all the ‘rules’, like double space after a period”

    Andréa, funny you should mention that one in particular. I did very little typing until I took a typing class in college. Then I typed everything — on an old manual typewriter until computers came along. My most ingrained habit is that of the double space after a period. I can’t stop. At age 77, I still do it.

    And I have always used the em dash a lot — like here, but the easiest way is to type space, dash, dash, space. I know there’s an Alt-# code for it, but I can never remember it when I want to use it.

  13. In high school, I was a member of the school newspaper (I still have one of my ‘Star Gazer’ press cards), eventually becoming Sports Editor. One of the somewhat difficult tasks was layout, including making headlines that fit. So you had know the widths of characters in the font being used, and do a lot of counting to make sure that the headline would fit and look good.

    Another layout issue that was a topic of controversy was layout planning. You could either:

    Let the reporters write the stories, edit for content, then create a layout from that.
    Create a layout first, then let the reporters/editors know how many column inches each story should be.

    The first method was traditional, the second the one the faculty sponsor wanted to implement. When I first joined the paper, the Editor and Asst. Editor were basically figureheads and all the power lay with the individual page editors. The sponsor added a new position of Layout Editor. That started a year-long battle over control.

  14. Have been typing since 1960. But dropping the double space rule didn’t give me any problems. I often us – word – but never — word — in the middle of sentences. That may be why I use ellipses so often.

  15. Back when Opus and Bill the Cat ran for President years ago, their platform was basically “two spaces after a period, damnit.”

    I’d have voted for them.

  16. My first reaction was the enlargement sequence. In the pixelage 😂 there is lots more lost in translation, especially for thumb typers and and pinch/open readers. Evolution is neat to watch, but tough to experience.

  17. In Microsoft products, space-hyphen-space and then tyoing another character puts a longer dash in between the spaces.

    I always hated the em dash in standard typography because it butted right up against the characters on either side. I much prefer having the spaces around it.

  18. Some people insist, upon seeing a hyphen, on calling it a dash. Much of the time, if someone refers to a “dash,” we must assume they really mean a hyphen.

  19. 19th century writers often used dashes in their manuscripts___ Harriet Beecher Stowe for instance frequently used dashes at the baseline in place of periods___ Not only that but —Sometimes I use a dash instead of quotation marks— she said___

  20. Very true, Ed, and especially when someone is reading aloud or simply speaking a web address or URL. But I feel like it used to be normal to say dash and to let it slide; but now you hear people more often either getting it right as hyphen from the start, or self-consciously making a point of correcting dash to hyphen even if on the air.

    But to tell the truth I cannot muster the spirit to get disturbed at dash when I’m getting ready to overreact to a stray backslash. Aaaaayyyyrrghhhhspght!

  21. One of the punctuation styles Mark in Boston mentions did not expire with the 19th century. Dashes initial to a quotation (especially a line of dialogue in fiction) were quite standard for French publishing and some Irish authors. I think I first noticed it reading The Ginger Man, but then in Joyce, in Dubliners and Portrait and Ulysses.

    So to see it used by American authors somehow marked them as experimental or European-influenced or serious :-). And The Recognitions by William Gaddis lived up to those expectations! Back then they talked about “writing The Great American Novel” and it turns out Gaddis was doing that!

    And it also clued me to take seriously Hubert Selby Jr, when it would have been easy to dismiss Last Exit to Brooklyn and later Requiem for a Dream as potboilers or mere exploitation or false-naive writing. He was not (to start) an academic at all, but man that guy was so sophisticated and smart about writers’ tricks that you wouldn’t dare underestimate him. … And the first clue, as I said, was that he used dashes for dialogue.

  22. Steve Jobs was a fan of good typography, so the Mac keyboard makes things like dashes easy. The Mac keyboard has a key marked “option”, which is the same as “Alt” on most non-Mac keyboards. The following works, at least on a North American English keyboard:

    hyphen
    – en-dash: Option-Hyphen
    — em-dash: Shift-Option-Hyphen

    (I hope that makes it through Word Press and through whatever browser on whatever platform readers are using.)

  23. Speaking of Word Press, it still eats up list enumeration and footnotes and such. Is this something you can change on the forum? It’s kind of odd and unexpected. I don’t know if HTML lists would work, I will stick one below to see what happens.

    Coffee
    Tea
    Milk

  24. In high school Spanish we were taught to use long dashes instead of quote marks (I don’t remember whether this was for “continental” or Mexican Spanish, our teacher tended to mix the two somewhat). The initial reaction of most of the class (myself included) was “That’s just plain wrong!” — It takes a while to learn and accept that other languages have different rules and customs.

    P.S. However, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Modern German normally uses „inverted commas“ (pointing away from the contents). I’ve been using the language for over three decades, but I still think they look ugly. Some books still use the »old style« German quote marks, which I think look much nicer. I wish that they were more common.

    P.P.S. Those »goose-feet« quotes are also used in French, but there they are «reversed» (to «surround», instead of »pointing to« the quoted material). Unfortunately, the HTML names for these characters follow the French convention, so that some »German« books are printed with «French» quotes.

  25. Brian, yes and no. We have (courtesy of larK) some tested CSS that could be dropped into the Theme and would restore numbered lists — from our point of view, mostly to provide numbering of comments in a thread.
    We also know where the “drop in additional CSS” is located, and have tried it.
    But it requires a higher level of Plan than we are operating under.

  26. Kilby says “Ooops! My comment didn’t get “moderated”, it simply “vanished”!”

    Yes, that is a sign that it went into Spam. The spam detector is a plug-in whose parameters we don’t have any input about, so don’t fret over wanting some keyword removed from a trigger list or anything like that.

    Kilby, if it’s the one abut high school Spanish class, it did get marked as spam, and I’ll release it as soon as I finish typing this.

    Anybody, if it looks to you that a comment has disappeared without the “held for moderation” notice in your browser, it might be helpful if you wrote to us (or posted a comment), as we do periodically go thru the spam queue — mostly for “delete permanently? Yes” operation, but if we notice a legit comment we can “mark not spam” so it helps to be on the lookout for a specific user.

  27. Kilby, thanks for all those additional quotation styles. When I mentioned that the use of initial dash for dialog in fiction could be noticed in some Irish writers, and was maybe pretty typical for French publication, I started to say Continental instead of French, but immediately realized I had no acquaintance with German practice but had seen those odd other paired types in excerpts. But your info about Spanish fits with the idea it is wider than France and Ireland.

    It can be noted that the initial-dash style differs from all those others, in not pairing up a mark for beginning a line of dialogue (or a quotation generally) and another mark for ending a quote. All those others pair them up. Even in monospace or “typewriter” font, where the glyphs do not differ visually, we still see them paired, and in dictation would say “begin quote” and “end quote”. Even in the cases you raise where the paired glyphs seem to be pointing the “wrong way” they are still identify fiably paired and firmly block out the quoted or dialogue material.

    Which may sound dryly logical or nerdish, but to a young American reader used to paired double-quote marks the formally open-ended dash style could be disconcerting. Somehow the firmly paired double quotes made fiction dialogue feel like it’s really there, like these are the words a character is really saying. Even the British style of paired single quotes was a step down in sense of realism, and the dash style was a big step toward sounding or feeling unancjored.

  28. Andrea and Becky, I can’t break myself of the habit of 2 spaces after the period, either. Believe it or not, I used to type 70 wpm. Now I’m lucky to get through a sentence without a typo.

  29. I was typing something up for a teacher one day, and he was amazed at the speed at which I was typing. I didn’t tell him that I was making misteaks at much the same speed ‘-)

  30. Thank you, Kilby.
    (1) I thought I had seen that dash-for-quotation practice somewhere, and now I realize it was in Spanish novels that I read long ago.
    (2) I’ve seen the »German« and «French» quotes, but never realized that one was German« and the other French. And I agree with you that either of these looks better than the other method.
    (3) When I was in j-school and then the newspaper biz, the “common knowledge” was that “en-” and “em-” referred to the capital letters’ relative width, whether they modified “dash” or “space.”

  31. Mitch4, you reminded me of some British book I read long ago, with a nested quotation within a nested quotation. The outer quotation had single marks, the one within it had double marks, and the innermost one had triple marks (as in ‘Adam cited Bill saying “Chuck told me ”’go away”’ so I did” and he (Adam) nodded.’).

  32. It actually makes sense to do it that. It’s similar to what we would do in physics and math with derivatives. So if you have x, then x’ would be the first derivative of x (usually velocity), x” the second, x”’ the third, etc.

  33. Will someone explain to me this “difference” between a dash and a hyphen you’ve been going on about? I only see one such item on my keyboard, and it is either a dash or a hyphen or a minus sign, depending on how I feel at the moment. I know if I type two of them, Word will turn it into an em dash. Can someone demonstrate the difference you are talking about?

    I actually came here to mention that I haven’t found a legitimate way to type the okina used in Hawai`ian. I’m not even sure if the thing I just used is correct, since it should look like an upside down apostrophe, but none of the keyboard tricks I’ve tried has anything that looks like that.

  34. @ guero – There is no difference as far as a standard typewriter is concerned, because the standard keyboard only contains one “-” key. There is no “correct” name for this character, just as there is no “correct” name for the “#” character: it depends on the context in which they are used. However, most of the names discussed above relate not to the typewriter key, but to the various forms and lengths of the horizontal lines that are used in typesetting. Similarly, there are a large number of different sizes, shapes and orientations of accents and apostrophes, but a standard US keyboard only offers one key for them all (ignoring the “backtick”, which is a different type of character).

    In both cases, getting the correctly shaped character into the final document depends on the operating (or typesetting) system you are using. If I had typed this comment on my iPad, the iOS keyboard would have made it much easier to supply many examples of the different shapes. Since I am working from my desktop, access to these characters is much more limited, and they also depend on WordPress’s irritating facility to twist apostrophes and quotes to fit an ill-informed notion of “correctness”. MS-Word is subject to some of the same provincial attitudes, which is the reason that a very large number of “home-grown” signs on small German shops display an “upside down” apostrophe.

  35. Today’s Dilbert (https://dilbert.com/ for Wednesday September 21, 2022) uses em dashes in two places that should have hyphens. Looking back, I see he does it regularly, but now this discussion has sensitized me to it.

Add a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s