Where the dangers presented by those with a little learning are allayed        

Em an' En – Real Slim'n'Shady

Ah, the joys of Random Access Memory – not the computer's: mine.

I can't even remember what it was that I was pottering about with yesterday, but it spurred a memory of one of the many, many ridiculous discussions that I took part in in one of the English-usage newsgroups where I used to troll.

Yes, really: I used to troll them.  Not in the nastiest way or because of any trollish proclivities, but because there is literally nothing else that anyone with a substantial education in and/or knowledge of the English language can do there.  They are frighteningly encamped bastions of the "little learning" principle, where the loudest, most pompous, most arrogant, and most under-educated morons rule the roost.

What I would do was drop in, see what was being discussed, and how it was being misinterpreted, misreported, and mis-described (that accounts for about 80% of everything posted there), then parody that misinterpretation, misreporting, and mis-description by taking it down yet another wrong direction (however, I always picked one that, if you actually thought about it, would lead you to the genuine information).

I think that it's there that I learned to hate the "little learning" thing.  So many loud voices, all shouting bollocks as if it were Gospel, with hardly any of them able to comment at all without Googling, repeating whatever drivel was in the first result, and then acting as if they were learned men.

Anyway, one day, I decided to find out a bit more about one of these unsterling fellows (I won't give his real name; instead I'll use anagrammatic encryption to obfuscate it), this Rice chap.

I'd noticed that he tended to waffle on even more authoritatively, pompously, and lengthily than most of the others, and that a lot of his phrasing was very familiar (in that I knew that I had read the same descriptions with almost exactly the same wording elsewhere)

Now, you have to take into account that the Internet was a lot smaller, containing a lot less reference material, back then, and precious few linguistics books, whether advanced, basic, or childish, were available on-line, so looking something up meant going through the hundreds of tomes on the subject that I owned (many of which were not with me where I was).

There were numerous topics, however, that I had, in the past, cross-referenced from just about every source (yes, my library of books on English and linguistics is that big), so I had to get him talking about one of those topics.

Not hard to do.  I threw in a fake compliment and some words of truly insincere respect, and he happily dumped hundreds and hundreds of words on the topic for me...

... Which he might as well have copied verbatim, because it was patently bloody obvious that what he'd done was read my question, open a copy of Curme, and lightly paraphrase what he read into his reply.  In a highly authoritative and pompous voice, of course.

What a moron.

Anyway, I'd got his number, and I went about making his life miserable over the next few months, by revealing to him not only where Curme had gone wrong (which was in lots of places), but also where he, Rice, had misunderstood what Curme had written (which happened even more frequently, because he had only ever read snippets of the book, so missed the thousand bigger pictures that adjusted/overruled/varied the meanings of the snippets).

So, you ask, Are you ever going to get to the F&ˆ%$£* point!

Well, OK, but I was quite enjoying having a good bitch about idiots :(

Let's start again.


Em an' En – Real Slim'n'Shady (reboot)

And the question was about...


Simple things, dashes, and very structured and organised, if you're a typesetter.

But if you're a heathen like the rest of us, and just have to use whatever rubbish is dumped into the code of your word processor, they're not so easy to get to grips with.

To start with, there's a perspective that you have to learn:

  • There is not really any such thing as "a dash"; "dash" is a generic term for all the different dashes.

Put it this way: if someone tells you to insert a dash between two things, your reply could be "Which one?", because there isn't "A dash", there are different dashes.

That's similar to being asked to put a word between two things – you need to know which word.

So what dashes to we have?

Let's put our cards on the table (or our dashes in a table) – all the ones you're likely to use, in ascending order of size:

Name Symbol Main uses Typeset "Real" size
Bullet hyphen Vertical lists - Who knows?
Hyphen Joining compound words, & breaking words at EOL - No standard
Figure dash Between numbers - As wide as a number
En-dash Parenthesising, showing ranges, showing relationships -- As wide as an 'n'
Tilde ~ Elipsis, or like a sort of punctuational pronoun ~ As wide as an 'n'
Em-dash Interruption, attribution, and redaction --- As wide as the font is high

There are others, of course – I mean, they're piddly little inconsequential horizontal marks that you use when writing, so loads and loads of people have gone to great lengths to invent new ones, and devise petty little rules for other people to obey.

I mean, all those "them-as-can't" academics have got to do something to justify their salaries, haven't they?

Note that I used HTML escape codes to print the characters in the Symbol column, which is why the bullet, hyphen, and the figure dash look different in the Typeset column, where I just used the keyboard.

The en-dash and the em-dash look different because that's the way you have to type them for typesetters.

Now the boring details...

The Bullet Hyphen

Well, it's a bullet, innit?

I honestly have no idea how big they are supposed to be, but they're small.  I could Google it, I suppose, but that would kind-of defeat the purpose of this blog – it's about Actual learning, not the Googled or quickly-looked-up variety.

Anyway, they're bullet chars, so who cares?  If you're writing for publication, use what the typesetter tells you to – or just use hyphens, if no preference is given.

The Hyphen

It is likely that this is the only dash key that you have on your keyboard.

In typesetting, there are differences between hyphens, non-breaking hyphens, minus symbols, figure dashes, and en-dashes, but if you're not writing for publication, you use the same key for all of them.

And yes, the minus sign key and the hyphen key usually print exactly the same symbol.  They give you a key for it on your numeric keypad for convenience only.

Its usage?  It's for going inside and in-between words, to show that they are effectively a single word, e.g. they go at the end of a line if a word has been broken to fit, and they go between words used as compound words, like the compound adjective "banana-sundae" in "banana-sundae flavour".

The Figure Dash

Specifically for use with numbers, the figure dash is the same width as a numerical character (which should be the same width of most alphabetic characters – or all of them, in a monospaced face – but someone got his Masters by inventing rules for it in his thesis, so it's really, really important to make the distinction).  (Someone should make clear to these idiots that punctuation is little squiggles, not rocket surgery.)

You type it by hitting the hyphen key on your keyboard.  Or the minus key.

Its usage?  Well, it's like a hyphen for numbers, innit?  So when you type a phone number, say 555-1234, that hyphen (that you typed with a hyphen or minus key) isn't a hyphen, despite its being absolutely identical to the hyphen (and the minus symbol).

D'you think that that's as stupid as it gets?

Think again.  Remember that you can write stuff with dashes in it by hand.

The En-Dash

OK, this is where it gets more interesting, and actually useful.

But let's skip quickly through the "I've invented a new rule for punctuation!  Give me tenure!" crap, first:

Many people of little learning haughtily tell people to use the en-dash to:

  • Show a range, e.g. 1–99.
    Do you see the point in using an en-dash, rather than a hyphen?  I certainly don't.  I hope he failed his Masters.

  • Show a relationship, e.g. "East–West accord".
    In all cases, you can use a slash or a colon for this, which usually makes it less ambiguous, e.g. "work/life balance" and "fat:muscle ratio".

Now the good bit: Parenthesis.

Parenthesis is called parenthesis because one way to parenthesise text is by enclosing it in round brackets, which happen to be called "parentheses", but you can parenthesise text with commas, square brackets, and en- and em-dashes, too – and even semi-colons, if the fancy takes you (although they give more of a separation).

Just-in-case time:  So what is parenthesis?

Well, parenthesis is where you are talking about one thing, but you need to add a detail that's not directly related – another clause, maybe – in the middle of what you're saying.

In case you read it too fast to notice, I just did it in that sentence.  the clause "another clause, maybe" adds quite a lot in helping the reader to understand what is being described, but in a nice way.

Why do I say "nice"?  Try rephrasing the sentence without any parenthesis, but containing the same information – including the bit about the parenthesised item possibly (or not) being another clause.

When you try to replace parenthesis that way, it demonstrates how good use of it can get rid of a lot of dry, dull waffle.

The natural rule for parenthesising with en-dashes is space+en-dash+space (no, that's not space plus en minus dash plus space!  Behave!)

That is how people always wrote it by hand (and still do), so that is what people find easiest to read.

Some publishers prefer that you do not space around en-dashes (e.g. "clause–clause", rather than "clause – clause") so do it that way if it makes them happy, no matter how right or wrong they are to want it.

Why would they be wrong to want it?  Well, because it implies an urgency that does not exist, and which changes the feel of the sentence, that's why.

You would only write it by hand with the dashes almost touching the letters either side of it if you were trying to show suddenness/haste/panic/urgency – and then you would use a longer dash, anyway, an em-dash, because implying suddenness, urgency, etc. is one of the functions of the em-dash.

So there you are!  Parenthesise away, using en-dashes!

A word of caution, though:  You've probably noticed that I use parenthesis a lot, with all the punctuation marks that are available for it.  This is because I like to cram a lot of information and expression into as few words as possible, while keeping it non-dull (you can call me an old fart, but never a boring old fart!)

Just remember that I've had decades of practice.  If you haven't, go steady.  Sometimes, the long way around is the only way around.  Parenthesis can just as easily make your work unreadable as more readable.

If you're producing material for publication, you type the en-dash as two hyphens ("--").  That's not because it's any bigger than the hyphen (which does not have a defined size, that I remember), but because it lets the typesetter know that it is an en-dash, rather than any other variety of dash.

One of my pet moans when writing for the Interwebs is that I always have to do a search and replace, when I'm finished, to replace all the instances of "--", that I've typed out of habit, with the HTML escape code for the en-dash.

The Tilde

The tilde is interesting, because it can be used to represent "what we're talking about", in pretty much the same way that you can use a pronoun in place of someone's name.

Dictionaries use it like that a lot, when giving usage examples:

Stinky Adj.
Man, you've got ~ feet!  Move those ~ things away from the phone!

It can also be used in other situations, to avoid repeating text – doubling it up if multiple words are skipped:

Hey, my feet are not stinky!


Did you mean "~~ not more than incredibly stinky!"?

Apart from that, you'll probably never need 'em in normal use.

The Em-Dash

The em-dash is as useful as the en-dash, but not nearly as usable.  You type it as three hyphens ("---"), in work for publication.

Its main function is to show that something is interrupted:

"I thought you said you were going to—"
"Shut up."
"But I—"
"Shut Up!"

Damn, I'll bet you wish you could write dialogue as good as that, eh?

It's rare that you have to write interruptions, though, which is why I say it's less usable than the en-dash.

It's also used for attribution:

That was an excerpt from Shut up, Jim—Mark Wallace

Man with hole in pocket feel cocky—Confucious.

And for showing that words have been redacted:

The President was seen with—, who was— his—.

But redaction is a form of interruption, so that's to be expected.

Note that that's redaction, not ellipsis.  If you just want to skip some words, use the ellipsis character ("..."), instead.

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