I was reading What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy? by Jeffrey Goldberg over at The Atlantic site. It’s forceful, worrying, and short; I encourage you to read it too. But this isn’t about that; it’s about an appalling typographical botch and how you can avoid making it.

Let me quote Goldberg’s opening words:

“Is it actually possible that one day Israelis -- Jewish Israelis -- would choose to give up democracy...”

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, those amateurish hyphens. Goldberg is trying to achieve a perfectly reasonable typographical effect and his production/editorial staff at The Atlantic are letting him down awfully.

Em and En · Those double-hyphens are trying to represent long dashes, used here to set apart the interpolation “Jewish Israelis”, a technique common among many writers including myself. The effect is subtly different from that achieved by setting the interpolation apart with commas, or parenthesizing it. A glance at Wikipedia reveals the variety of dashes conventionally available. Among professional publishers, the em-dash (U+2014 “—”) and en-dash (U+2013 “–”) are both in common use. The correct choice is a complex function of the typeface you’re using and your design aesthetic. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use em-dashes.

But that isn’t the only issue.

Spaces · The question is, should they appear either side of the dash? Both options are common; have a look:

“Is it actually possible that one day Israelis—Jewish Israelis—would choose to give up democracy...”
“Is it actually possible that one day Israelis — Jewish Israelis — would choose to give up democracy...”

I personally prefer the second option, with the spaces. However, there’s a catch: If you’re publishing to the Web, you can’t control where the line-breaks are going to occur, and you might end up with something awful like:

...that one day Israelis — Jewish Israelis
— would choose to give up democracy...”

Fortunately this is easy to dodge, with the use of a non-breaking space, U+00A0. Thus the right incantation is U+00A0, U+2014, U+00A0, or in HTML-speak  — . I edit this space in Emacs, and have set up handy keyboard shortcuts which make it easy to just type in the Unicode characters. But there are lots of ways to achieve the effect.

Oh, and if you care about the future of the Middle East at all, do go read Mr. Goldberg’s piece.


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From: David Magda (Dec 30 2010, at 18:47)

FWIW, The Chicago Manual of Style (15 ed.) doesn't use spaces around any kind of dashes or hyphens.


From: Robert Young (Dec 30 2010, at 19:37)

Israel has always been a theocracy. And such will be its downfall.


From: Ben (Dec 30 2010, at 22:13)

I found this comic strip to be, sadly, very relevant to this post:



From: eric (Dec 30 2010, at 22:37)

I like being a rebel and do spaces like they are with parentheses —like this— but mostly just to annoy designers.


From: Matt Leidholm (Dec 31 2010, at 00:49)

I think em dashes look best when surrounded by hair spaces (HTML numeric entity 8202), but since that's also a breaking space, it doesn't solve the line break problem.


From: Joe Clark (Dec 31 2010, at 05:17)

Well, you’ve gotten this completely wrong. Even if you choose em dash, against which there are numerous arguments you obviously haven’t heard, one does not typeset a space on either side and one never ever uses a nonbreaking space. Linebreaks properly can and must happen before or after an em dash.

The fact that nospace-emdash-nospace does not work online (browsers get linebreaks wrong, among other issues) is more than enough reason to do what actually informed people do and use space-endash-space.

“I just Wikipediaed the concept of dashes, so I thought I’d give everyone advice” is, it seems, a recipe for failure.


From: Walter Underwood (Dec 31 2010, at 08:15)

That really does look awful, The Atlantic should know better.

It is also bad punctuation. Appositives should be set off with commas, not em dashes.

Double fail.


From: Kevin Reid (Dec 31 2010, at 08:25)

A caution about non-breaking spaces: At least once upon a time — I think it is less common, or a fixed bug, now — I often saw non-breaking spaces rendered as extra-wide spaces (‘average character’ sized rather than normal space sized). If you use non-breaking spaces liberally, you might want to check if this still happens on any platform of interest.


From: Andy Lee (Dec 31 2010, at 08:27)

I prefer spaces around the dashes too -- like this -- to help distinguish them from hyphens-between-words. I do use em dashes, and the greater length should in theory be enough to avoid this confusion, but I feel the spaces help.


From: Tony Lavinio (Dec 31 2010, at 12:48)

I thought that in general, an em dash would not get spaces, or at best hair-width spaces. It was the en dash that would get spaces. This from an old Adobe poster on typesetting rules that I've got around here somewhere...


From: John Roth (Jan 01 2011, at 18:22)

From Garner's American Usage (3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2009, p 678).

The em-dash, which is as wide as the capital M, is used to mark an interruption in the structure of a sentence. In typewriting, it is commonly represented by two hyphens, often with a space at each end of the pair (--). ... A pair of em-dashes can be used to enclose a parenthetical remark or to mark the ending and the resumption of a statement by an interlocutor.

Sometimes, perhaps as a result of an ill-founded prejudice against dashes, writers try to make commas function in their place. Often this doesn't work. In fact, the commas can result in a comma splice....

Consider putting a letter space before and after an em-dash. Although most book publishers omit the spaces, outside fine typography the spaces help prevent awkward line breaks.

End of excerpt.

The en-dash is a separate mark, and doesn't do the same thing.


From: Derek K. Miller (Jan 01 2011, at 19:49)

In my editorial training, em- and en-dashes are very different beasts.

You're speaking of em-dashes exclusively here, which typographically should be set off without spaces, or at best hair spaces—in the manner of this aside—and which are sometimes replaced with double-hyphens as a legacy of the days of typewriters.

En-dashes are different, usually used in inclusive spans (such as "World War II (1939–1945)" or "the New York–Chicago route"). There are other uses too, and the Chicago Manual describes them rather well.

Dashes are used sloppily all over the Web, but when used properly, em-dashes (called that because, in many typefaces, they're the width of a letter m) in particular are my favourite piece of punctuation. They can replace colons, semicolons, parentheses, and commas when used properly—and are often clearer when you do.

Typing them is easy: in most cases, — and – are all you need.


From: carlos (Jan 02 2011, at 02:10)

The unspaced em dash (or any em dash) is uncommon in modern British typesetting and my British brain tries to read it as an elongated hyphen, resulting in a double-take when this makes no sense. Avoid if you're aiming at British readers.


From: Sam Greenfield (Jan 02 2011, at 08:16)

The en-dash is not used for breaking up a sentence. en-dashes are used in expressing a range or a series. They can also be used for tying together multiple hyphenated expressions. In typography, the en-dash is similar to a hyphen, but it is the size of an "en."

An em-dash is used for breaking up sentences. In typography, it is similar to the hyphen, but it is the size of an "em." I have seen it rendered with a space on either side, but I have never found a good reference stating that spaces are preferred or not preferred. When using a fixed width font, such as Courier, it is common to use two hyphens to represent the em-dash.

I don't understand the comment slamming wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash is pretty great although http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyphen could use some help.


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