The (almighty) Dash

After working with my editor and completing my novel, I have a confession to make: I hate em-dashes. Don’t mistake me- I am a fan of the grammatical device a dash provides; I simply dislike their contemporary execution. Em-dashes are supposed to signal an interruption in a sentence but they are way too wide and intrusive. For me, they completely obliterate the cohesion of the words. It’s like using a nuclear bomb to strip paint from a house- it gets the job done, but at what cost?

<Author’s Note: insert drawing of giant Em-Dash shaking fists, screaming “KNEEL TO ME!” while hapless consonants and vowels scurry below>

Here’s my motto: Readability is paramount. Isn’t this the reason style manuals exist in the first place? “Here are a set of standards that make text easy to understand,” they say. “Go to town.”

The Chicago Manual of Style is probably the most favored for fiction. I find myself in their camp most of the time, especially with regards to the Oxford Comma. Another popular choice is AP Style, although most of their peculiarities are geared towards journalism. That is to say, style manuals are tailored to specific mediums.

Why then, in the modern age of the internet, do we not have an updated style guide for electronic formats? Most of my sales will be from ebooks, and the coming years should only exacerbate that fact. That’s why, against my editor’s wishes, I am refusing to publish using either of the current em-dash standards.

Unspaced Em-dash

This is the advised method of the Chicago Manual of Style. With these giant words and obtrusive spacing, the em-dash itself doesn’t look too big here, but there are plenty of times when it does. In this case, the lack of spacing around the dash works against it. As the structure is right-justified, sentences are stretched unnaturally as the em-dash refuses to release its death grip on its neighboring words.

Another problem with this style is displayed by the blue box (an attempt to characterize Amazon word highlighting). On the kindle, when dealing with words connected by a dash, it is impossible to select a single one for definition. Now, this is certainly just an easy bug that could be fixed quickly, but it was a bug 5 years ago and still it lingers today. What’s more, it’s very likely that over 90% of my sales will be in the mobi format, so this is an important error to skirt.

Doubly-Spaced En-dash

The AP has a solution to these problems and uses what is a widely adopted internet style. First, a much more reasonable dash size (the width of an ‘n’) is used. Secondly, spacing is utilized to help normalize sentence balance. However, this is where the AP goes overboard. En-dashes are doubly-spaced, treated as entire words in their own right. This creates the very real and opposite problem of too much spacing, especially when justification takes over, as in the second line.

Furthermore, one of my biggest problems with this format is when a dash is forced to start on a new line. A reader should never finish a word like ‘paramount’ at the end of the line without knowing that there is a stop there. Waiting until the next line breaks the sentence in a way that is confusing.

My Way, the Singly-Spaced En-dash

For your consideration: the EMOS (Electronic Manual of Style) version.

Here I am attempting to address the issues with the commonly accepted styles. The ‘en-dash and single-space’ combination is clear and readable without being distractingly different from the rest of the spacing. A line will never begin with a dash. And, of course, individual words are easy to delineate and highlight.

As a programmer, I am also keen on uniformity of syntax style. This dash placement matches up much better with period, comma, colon, and semi-colon usage.

Interestingly, I like to do the same thing with the ellipsis… but that’s a different story.


  1. Reply

    Thank you. I found your post very helpful. And yes, I agree on the need for a style guide for ebooks. They are a bit different from print.

  2. Reply

    I’m glad my ramblings were helpful!

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