Poor Monsieur Dash

Poor Monsieur Dash! He was once so important and so popular. Writers loved him. Editors respected him. And everyone knew just what he meant. He was always in the middle of things, stopping us in our tracks every time we met him. But now we rarely meet him. Hardly anyone even knows his name. His place has been taken by another — an impostor of barely half his breadth.

M. Dash has been replaced by another Dash, known to the authorities as En Dash. En Dash’s job was once to connect things — letters and numbers namely, like F–16 and 555–1212. He got his name from his size: He is the width of an N, a little shorter than M. Dash, a little longer than Herr Hyphen.

Herr Hyphen’s job is also to connect things. Syllables and words are his specialty. He turns up in “pre-existing condition” and “long-term gain.”

M. Dash, on the hand, has always been a separator. He gives us pause — longer and more pregnant pause than the common comma. He makes us stop and think: “To die, to sleep — to sleep, perchance to dream — aye, there’s the rub.” He sometimes changes the subject: “— Soft you now, the fair Ophelia.” He has us hold our breath: “I’ll have grounds more relative than this — the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”

Lately, though, N. Dash has taken over M. Dash’s job, for which he is not well suited. N. Dash is just too short.

It’s not his fault, however. The blame should go instead to M. Gates, who gave us MS Word. (Fie! Fie!) In Word, you only have to type two hyphens inside two spaces between two words and — voila! — En Dash appears, as if by magic. It’s so easy that everyone now does it whenever they need a dash, for whatever purpose. Almost everyone. Editors of the Old School — those paid to publish books — still respect differences between the Dashes.

Word can conjure M. Dash as well. The trick is to type two hyphens between two words without spaces. That’s the problem. When people want to separate words, they instinctively add space between them; when they want to connect things, they leave the spaces out. But Word gives us a long dash without spaces and a short dash with spaces. Either way, words meant to be separated appear closer than they should be.

In fairness to M. Gates, the use of em dashes without spaces is a longstanding typesetting convention intended to conserve space. But that convention did not allow the option of en dashes with spaces, as Word does. In Word, the option upsets the convention by replacing em dashes with en dashes and spaces, which are longer than em dashes alone but still not quite long enough to be visually effective.

There are also times when we need en dashes without spaces, when, for instance, connecting more than two words, as in “White House–backed proposal” and “New York–New Jersey border.” For such times in Word, hold down the ALT key while typing 0150 on the numbers pad. The same procedure using 0151 gives you an em dash. With a little practice, it becomes so natural that you won’t need Word to do it for you.

You’ll only need to know when to use one and when to use the other, but that’s easy: Just remember, en dashes connect and em dashes separate. Vive la différence!

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