Alas the en dash        
(its decline and fall)        


In the dark ages of long ago, in the infancy of personal computing, when Bill Gates was nothing but a millionaire, brilliant minds pondered character sets. These people were fine as long as the characters were found on a typewriter keyboard. The moment, though, that ASCII was extended to include further characters, everything fell to pieces. Some of the extended characters are plain embarrassments, such as the three-point ellipsis which has fixed spacing.

Each point in an ellipsis, in terms of finer typography, is separated by whatever the present word spacing is; it blends best that way. Moreover, depending on how it is used, the ellipsis can have either three or four points. To use the three-point ellipsis character with a period for a four-point ellipsis is simply bad taste, or the mark of a novice.

Or thatís the way it used to be . . . before the introduction of desktop publishing (which would be better known as design and composition) programs, such as Ventura and Pagemaker. The people who did the programming were, of course, brilliant. But they didnít know too much about either design or composition, and would have had their hands burnt off if they ever picked up the Chicago Manual of Style or Words into Type. Consequently, any number of errors were perpetuated.

Consider the unfortunate en dash. It isnít found on a typewriter keyboard or in genteel conversation. And its usage is rather specialized, as far as dashes go. The en dash conveys time, range, or distance, as in

    AugustNovember 1997
    pages 7298
    the ChicagoPhiladelphia route
It is also used in certain types of compound adjectives, to avoid confusion:
    New Yorkbased company
    high-inflationfull-employment condition
As a rather specialized character, different style manuals and different publishers had developed their own unique slant on en dashes. Chicago Manual prefers using en dashes between prefixes and compound adjectives; McGraw-Hill does not. Psychologists in search of a more sophisticated jargon leaped on the en-dash bandwagon courtesy of Wiley Interscience. The concept of range became comprehensive, rather than physical:
    motherdaughter relationship
Whether the expanded or diminished usage is preferable, the biggest mistake one can make with an en dash is to blindly place it between two numbers, such as in a double-numbering system:
    problem 110
    page 173
So guess what those early gurus of desktop publishing did? They defined the en dash as something that goes between two numbers. Ventura, from version 1 to version 4.2 (and perhaps beyond), steadfastly misinterpreted the en dash. The other major applications did the same, and computer books that purported to teach composition and design also got the en dash wrong.

After several years, seeds of doubt about the en dash began to arise in some of these expert books. A couple of writers have noted its alternative usage, and some programs have actually gotten its definition correct. So there is hope. Even an expert is capable of learning something.

But those early years of desktop publishing left a dread mark. New people entering traditional publishing learned the basics from the early DTP material. They probably even read some of the expert books. Consequently, traditional publishers are now in the process of screwing the en dash. On style notes from at least one major publisher, there it is in black and white: the en dash is to be used between any two numbers. No doubt this will eventually transcend back into expert books on DTP.

Poor old en dash: lost in a sea of modernity.

  Chet Gottfried        


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