Are You a Dash Abuser?

The dash is probably the single most abused piece of punctuation in the English language. No, I mean it.

 

Dash abuse. It’s a serious crime, with serious consequences. I’m guilty of it; you might be guilty of it. We spend years—lifetimes—figuring out when to use commas, colons, and semicolons. We learn to do nonsensical things like putting the comma inside the quotations because, well, that’s the way it’s done.

We spend a lot of time and energy getting grammar and punctuation right. But when we need a dash (whether of the em or en variety), a hyphen, or even a minus sign, eh. We just mash the one-size-fits-all “dash/hyphen/minus/whatever” button next to the zero key.

We might even get crazy and press it two or three times — like this — and we might squirt in a couple of spaces on either side, just to make it clear that we mean business. It’s what you could call a descriptivist, anything-goes approach to punctuation, and it means there are about a dozen ways to represent the following Einstein quote:

  • I never think of the future-it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future-it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future—it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future–it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future––it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future—it comes soon enough.

Those are all “closed” dashes, meaning they aren’t surrounded by spaces. You can also use open dashes, like this:

  • I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future – it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future –– it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.

And for that matter, you don’t have to use a full space on either side of the dash; you can use what’s called a hair space.

  • I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future – it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future –– it comes soon enough.
  • I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.

The difference may or may not be readily apparent, but it’s there. That’s a total of a dozen eighteen separate separate ways to render a freaking dash, and that’s not counting the minus sign which is (of course) a separate glyph. Some of these dashing styles are correct, most are incorrect, some are still being debated…and we bloggers and e-authors use them all.

It’s positively dashtardly.

So listen up, fellow dash-abusers. All dashes were not created equal. Even though the typical keyboard has a single dash/hyphen key, there are at least five different species of dash:

  • Figure dash
  • En dash
  • Em dash
  • Horizontal bar
  • Swung dash

That’s not counting other symbols which look like dashes:

  • Hyphen
  • Hyphen-minus
  • Minus sign

Each of these has a precise meaning and a separate dedicated glyph.

Now in the old days, the single-byte ASCII character set only provided for exactly one type of dash: the hyphen or “hyphen/minus”, decimal value 43. If you needed a dash, a hyphen, or a minus sign, you just used ASCII 43. And sometimes, in order to make your dashes stand out more, you’d line two of these puppies up together in a sort of double-hyphen dash:

I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.

This style was acceptable when we had no other options. It was the best practice for representing longer dashes when the character set had no real support for them. It even found its way into a few manuals of style. The Wikipedia article on the dash explains why:

Typewriters and computers have traditionally had only a limited character set, often having no key with which to produce a dash. In consequence, it became common to substitute the nearest incorrect punctuation mark or symbol. Em dashes are often represented by a pair of spaces surrounding a single hyphen-minus (typical British usage) or by a pair of spaces surrounding two hyphen-minuses (mostly in the United States).

Now fast forward 20 years.

Any kind of dash can manifest directly in an HTML document, but HTML also allows them to be entered as character entity references. The entity names for the em dash and the en dash are mdash and ndash; therefore, they can be referenced in HTML as — and –. The equivalent numeric character references are — and -. Nearly all web browsers and operating systems used today are capable of rendering the numeric form, and almost as many correctly display the named form.

Hello Unicode.

Hello HTML.

Hello capable web browsers.

Hello semantic web.

On the modern web, or in any writing of any sort other than a README.TXT file, the once-useful double-hyphen dash is inappropriate if not downright evil.* Modern word processors will actually abort the double-hyphen dash at the moment of conception, replacing it on the fly with a proper em dash:

What the word processor is trying to tell you is that there’s no longer any reason to manhandle hyphens as dashes. Any modern word processor or browser you care to mention is going to have support for (at the very least) the em dash and the en dash, which is all the dash most people ever need. Within HTML, you can input true dashes directly even if your editor doesn’t support them outright. And yet, for some reason, the hyphen-as-dash heresy still enjoys a wide following. Sites like CNBC, Huffington Post, and Coding Horror all do the double-hyphen forbidden dash lambada and they are by no means alone.

CNBC

“We think we can have a successful U.S. auto industry. But it’s got to be one that’s realistically designed to weather this storm and to emerge — at the other end — much more lean, mean and competitive than it currently is,” Obama said.

Huffington Post

“I’m delighted that today we are launching a new venture — The Huffington Post Investigative Fund. This nonprofit Fund will produce a wide-range of investigative journalism created by both staff reporters and freelance writers.”

Coding Horror

“I realize that using financial incentives on open source projects can have some unintended consequences. But a sort of attention and interest aggregation service for existing projects — one backed by real money, so you know the interested parties are serious — seems like a worthwhile cause. It might even attract the interest of other programmers if the pool got large enough.”

On the other hand, Google and Ars Technica (just to name a couple) get it right:

Google Blog

Making changes of this kind is never easy—and we recognize that the recession makes the timing even more difficult for the Googlers concerned.

Ars Technica

Still, even a 3x speed increase will be welcome to existing iPhone owners updating to the new OS—the speed will be beneficial for both web-based applications and general surfing.

Now all this is, admittedly, a minor point. I don’t want to be a dash-hole about it. After all, if it looks like a dash and quacks like a dash, it’s a dash. Visually, dashes, hyphens, and minus signs are similar enough that the intended meaning is rarely lost. And we’re not supposed to be using too many dashes anyway. And if the writing is decent and informative, who cares?

(By the way, don’t even get me started on the subject of dashes/hyphens/minuses in numbers or ranges:

  • On April 20–24, I’ll be in Madrid (En dash)
  • The Sox won the last game of the World Series, 7–4 (En dash)
  • My phone number is 999?999?9999 (Figure dash)
  • 4 - 2 = 2 (Minus sign)

Let’s just not even go there.)

But it’s a little bit of a disconnect when we crusade for “semantic markup” and “clean content” on the one hand, then turn around and substitute hyphens for dashes, dashes for minus signs, and minus signs for Social Security numbers on the other, probably swapping <p> for <br> while we’re at it, so that when we write “123-456-7890″ meaning “John Doe’s phone number”, some quasi-benevelont far-future deep-scanning Internet robot comes across our 200-year old missive during a random Internet archaeology dig and determines we were trying to subtract 7890 from 456 from 123, getting negative 8,223, convincing said robot that humans somehow pose a threat and inciting a Terminator-style genocide which ultimately results in the extinction of 9/10ths of the human race followed by a thousand-year period of technological Luddism dominated by a deep-rooted terror of Zytrax, the Horned Lizard-God of the Forest.*

Your blog or website is not a dash-ocracy. You are the dash-tator. You will make the dash-cisions around here, and you will suffer the dash-sequences. But since it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other anyway, why not do things as cleanly as possible?

* - Slight exaggeration here, but that doesn’t make the danger of imprecise markup any less real.

Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    Nice article — I completely support the cause.

  • Tom says:

    Thank you for the informative and thorough post. It’s a shame that most "professional" writers still can’t handle basic spelling and grammar, and their editors are either incompetent or nonexistent. Incorrect use of dashes seems to be dwarfed by much more serious and common problems. It’s still interesting, though.

  • Kyle says:

    I think The Elements of Style, which James referenced in an earlier post, states that the double dash ("-") is a substitute to the the em dash as a matter of preference or when the em dash is not available. I don’t have the text in front of me. I loaned it to someone who now lives >1000 miles away-figures.

  • Anonymous says:

    Your previous coinflip post doesn`t appear to be linked properly as I can`t continue reading it once I leave google reader.

  • Anonymous says:

    James I totally agree that shieet is dashturbing as hell.

  • Anonymous says:

    I guess it depends on whether you care. If everybody understands that "-" equals "em dash" then what does it really matter?

    OTOH, the rules of punctuation are precise for a reason — bad punctuation confuses the flow of a sentence. It would be annoying if everybody used two periods where they currently use one.. so from that perspective I can agree.

  • Anonymous says:

    I say that knowing that this post was half-joking in its tone (April Fool’s day perhaps?)

  • Beer Me says:

    Whelp, I’ll tell you what, once you down a few beers all this stuff stops mattering. Dash, minus, who cares. Give me my pornhub and my spicy pork rinds.

    By the way, that last paragraph was way out there.

  • Poker Forums says:

    Why not just eliminate the dash from English grammar. It’s bordering on useless if you ask me. Just stick to semi colons and commas and just leave the dashes out of it!

    Great article :D

  • bcd says:

    not to dash off to a new subject…

    in Firefox 3.0.8 i seem to have lost the ability to return to the previous page.

    i checked in IE8 and i can navigate both front and back.

    i used the link to "How to Interview a Programmer" to check Firefox’s functionality; it worked fine.

    anywho, thanks for several dashing (and daring) posts.

    off like a dirty shirt….

  • Ryan says:

    Back to code related posts please. I’m not here to read an English blog.

  • Ens says:

    I use the double dash surrounded by spaces to represent the em-dash.

    I’m a bit amused that you get worked up about this and then go and use neutral quotation marks: "like this" instead of “like this”. I don’t bother to use the proper quotation marks either, but it strikes me as hypocrisy and makes me feel better about re-using the wrong glyph when I know better, simply because it’s right there on my keyboard.

    I memorized "& n b s p ;", as well as Alt+130 for é because it came up so frequently in high school french assignments and I didn’t like going over the text after printing it with a pen and carefully adding the accent marks after-the-fact. That’s the extent of me memorizing codes for plaintext.

    Even discounting acceptable laziness as a reason disproving that "there’s no longer any reason to manhandle hyphens as dashes", there’s the fact that many commenting systems & blogs even filter out HTML for the proper dashes. Maybe this one, too — it does say "(sorry! no HTML. You may use BBCode.)" so I kind of expect it not to work. Also, there are several dramatic breaches of grammar in there.

    If I ran a blog I might be a bit more anal-retentive. Honestly, though, probably not.

  • ExMember says:

    So there are eight different glyphs that look like dashes but they are all slightly different and mean slightly different things. But I am still not able to distinguish them. Not only that, but only one of them is on my keyboard. There’s little I enjoy more than technical pedantry, but this is too much for even me.

    Now if you will excuse me, I have to go back to figuring out when and how to use a semi-colon and what the difference is between a nation, a country and a state.

  • Orwellophile says:

    To the writer — who suggested replacing the dash with the semicolon — i have this to say; I would rather me a dash-molester than a colon-hole.

  • Orwellophile says:

    By — I meant—of course—?—?; obviously `?’ and `?’ I meant `” and “’ . . . unless that isn’t the style.

    Don?t even ask about the " . . . ".

    Or, to be correct, does that have to be expressed as:

    ? . . . .?

    Closing punctuation within the quotes, that’s the rule isn’t it?

    Anyway, I have to dash. Mother’s boyfriend’s cat’s fur is on fire, and it’s turning into a catapostrophe.

  • Dashing Bob says:

    James—you have given me cause for pause—but then again—not ;) Now that the new audacious administration of hope and change is purging the "Polingo" of catchy phases like "The Axis of Evil", I suspect that we may need softer and gentler euphemisms for enemies—even "Word Warriors" like ourselves. Frankly, Darwin might be a better sherpa to guide us through the Information Age than Macchiavelli. Take your pick of his Natural Selection or Adaptation quotes. I like, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." So by now you must be asking what the heck is this clown talking about. James—I love the dash. I think it is a perfect casual punctuation mark for conversational email, texting and other informal written replacements for oral communication. Our evolving electronic forms of communication are about speed, collaboration, community, socially networking, and like casual speech not subject to the same rules of grammar as formal written communication. We should then make this simple and adaptive to our available devices and formats (i.e. QWERTY keyboards). If creating a pause, or a more dramatic separation is best accomplished with the dash-like hyphen, or two or three (for emphasis or a longer pause or separation) then I say—SO BE IT! Not only is a new language evolving but new rules of of grammar and punctuation are allowing us to easily adapt to our changing e-vironment. Admit it James—this is fun! Ciao—ciao.

    Ps. Admittedly, I am enjoying using the "em dash" on my Mac—option—shift—hyphen :)

  • Coding the Wheel says:

    [i]>I’m a bit amused that you get worked up about this and then go and use neutral quotation marks: "like this" instead of “like this”. I don’t bother to use the proper quotation marks either, but it strikes me as hypocrisy and makes me feel better about re-using the wrong glyph when I know better, simply because it’s right there on my keyboard.[/i]

    Well I think "worked up" is a little bit of an overstatement. Hard not to take this one with a grain of salt when the author uses words like "dashtardly". Just sayin’. Point taken on the use of quotes, but it’s a little different, isn’t it.

    [i]>Our evolving electronic forms of communication are about speed, collaboration, community, socially networking, and like casual speech not subject to the same rules of grammar as formal written communication.[/i]

    Any comment which uses the word "sherpa" is awesome! (Wikipedia is open-collaborative and somehow manages to enforce proper dashing style almost religiously. Not sure if that’s done on the back-end or what.)

  • Dashing Bob says:

    Hey James—what do you want from a former high school writing teacher and "Digital Immigrant". I love technology—but more for the fun of making things easier or more interesting. That is my point-if the marks or a lack of marks are obvious and allow you to effectively communicate-then do it. Some folks don’t use capitalization while others are neurotic about proper capitalization, punctuation and grammar-whatever makes it easy for you. Normally I don’t give a hoot-but I am a dashing kind of guy-and I think folks who don’t care about commas or semi-colons but want to create pauses, set off a comment, or separate ideas-perhaps within a larger idea-dashes usually do the trick. Molester and abuser are mean words-I am just a language pacifist-and want to promote libertarian linguistics in everyday internet speak. And as for those anal Wikipedians—-THEY NEED A FIND A SENSE OF HUMOR :)

  • Max Howell says:

    Regarding your previous comment that quotes are a "little different" and thus exempt.

    It doesn’t seem different, you either care about doing it right and take the time to, or you accept the convenience of doing it wrong.

    Generally, I use - ‘ and " like the rest of them, substituting the unicode glyphs is a PITA and not always possible. However, I do it properly when I’m writing something for other people’s presentation though. I don’t take the halfway house :P

  • Comfortable says:

    You’re swimming upstream (or up-stream) on this one.

    I learned all sorts of grammatical rules in school. Many of these have become obsolete during the last 40 years. Language is defined by how it’s used, believe it or not. Try perusing a 50-year-old Webster’s Dictionary. You’ll be surprised.

    Example:
    Do you think cocaine is a narcotic?
    Most people do.
    The very word "narcotic" means "sleep-inducing" (substance), same root word as narcolepsy.
    Doesn’t matter. Nowadays ‘narcotic’ is roughly synonymous with ‘illegal drug’.

    Think hurricane Katrina ‘decimated’ New Orleans? Really?
    Look up ‘decimated’, and you’ll discover that all those pretty reporters and newspaper writers really meant to say ‘devastated’, but through continued misuse (or mis-use) the two words will be listed in any dictionary as synonyms a few years from now.

    Give-it-up. You will be assimilated (heh heh)

  • Anonymous says:

    You’re fighting US-ASCII and Windows-1252. Real, linguistic dashes aren’t present in the former and live above 2^7 in the latter encoding. So your problem goes way back to the standardization of the byte at 8 bits; too bad we didn’t keep the 18-bit bytes of the PDP-1. Blame IBM.

  • Dashing Bob says:

    Max—who says you have to do things one way or the other. That is the whole point of being adaptive creatures. I don’t think we went from sea urchins to C-Programmers overnight. Some people use script (handwriting), others print, and then there are folks like myself who write in a hybrid form of script & print. Why are there so many different languages, language rules, dialects, slang etc.? When do new made up words join the hallowed dictionaries? Who put made Strunk and White, or was that MLA, or was that the Chicago Manual of Style—the Language Police?

    Ps. And Anonymous——you might want to check with Ira or Vint maybe you can restart Bitnet & Arpanet?

  • Heather says:

    Fascinating! It’s very nice to hear such a well-thought argument over something so…nerdy. I love it!

  • Orwellophile says:

    Decimated is a interesting word.

    If (as I recall) it was coined (along with coins), but the Roman’s as meaning "kill 1 in 10"… it would indicate that they were already tending towards a decimal system. Yet our calendar and time system (which I assume original from the Romans) favor base 12. Personally, I find 13 to be a much more mathematically interesting number. And not just when dealing with decks of cards (4×13), alphabet (2×13), the calendar (12 calender months = 365 days. 365 days / 13 = 28 days - the lunar month).

    My conspiracy attuned mental faculties suggest to me that mathematicians probably suggested a base 13 system, but were overruled due to unlucky 13 factor.

    I am very prepared to be proven wrong about this.

  • Orwellophile says:

    Oo?ps, I must have had my conspiracy cap on too tight.

    Of course the Romans were decimal, just look at Roman numerals. I guess that’s what it means when you get an X next to your name. Your decimated or somesuch.

    If you want to get to the true conspiracy, the one that will inexorably alter the way you see the universe, the one that will make you fear leaving the house lest the "thought police" get you…

    … if ???ober is the 8th month, why isn’t ???ember the 10th month?

  • Justin says:

    This is an excellent article! I just recently discovered all of these dashes when I searched Wikipedia to find out what en-dashes were for. (I wanted to hyphenate 2 “words” where one was already a hyphenated compound word, and was happy to find that the en-dash is used like a super‐hyphen just for that purpose, e.g. “their relationship is father‐son–like.”)

    But just now it’s occurred to me that there’s no simple way to type a hyphen!! I love that on my Mac I have the Option key to make en- and em-dashes easily… and yet every time I use the hyphen-minus key it’s a lie, because it’s *not* a hyphen, and it’s *not* a minus—it’s just some made-up symbol. It really would’ve made more sense (on a Mac at least) to have a regular hyphen key, and then the en-dash could double as a minus since they’re much closer in length than a hyphen and minus. Here they are next to each other and you can’t tell the difference: – −

    Now I need to go look for a key-mapping program :-/

  • Justin says:

    Now I think I screwed up with my father-son-like example. In writing “father-son relationship” you would use an en-dash instead of a hyphen because father and son don’t modify each other, right? So then I don’t know how you would write father-son-like. BTW I think you should write an article on the em-dash vs ellipsis when breaking up a sentence. Do you think I made a good choice in my post above that has a sentence containing both?

  • Justin says:

    A key‐mapping program for Mac has been found!!

    [Ukelele][1]

    It’s very nice! It shows the keyboard layout, and when you press Option or Shift‐Option it shows all the symbols the keys will make with those modifiers, and all you do is click the key you want to change and paste in the character or type in the Unicode number.

    Needless to say, I now have h‐y‐p‐h‐e‐n‐s and other symbols I like or find useful. Hopefully others will see this post and find Ukelele useful.

    [1]: http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&id=ukelele

  • Anonymous says:

    Until “—” appears on my keyboard, I’m using “-” and you can kiss my ass.

    Regards — Reader

  • Cecil's girlfriend says:

    Ceciel what are the fuck are you doing here? You dashfuck

    im leaving you.. go dash the fuck up

  • Cecil's son says:

    Dad my dash button is missing

  • Leave a Reply