Breathing Room

August 17, 2010

For a long time now, I’ve been quietly working to bring more space into the world. Specifically to typography and the em dash in particular. The en dash (–) and to a lesser degree it’s cousin the em dash (—) are some of the most misunderstood pieces of punctuation in the English language. Being a designer, I’m intimately concerned with the visual aspects of text and seeing an en dash crammed in between two words just screams, “HELP!” I find myself adding a single space on either side of the en dash consistently and repeatedly in my work. Using the em dash to separate phrases in a sentence has always seemed jarring and then to use it without any space on either side causes it to act as a hard stop on the eye of the reader. Not very pretty and not very functional.

And I’ve always thought it was just my quirky pursuit of a certain visual aesthetic. One of those quiet tasks a designer faces. A task that at first, you try to turf onto the writers through education (along with many of the other of the finer points of digital typography) but eventually resign yourself to as just part of the job.

Recently though, I came across some typography tips which expressed and reaffirmed my beliefs regarding the en and em dash. And from none other than famed typographer Erik Spiekermann in the FontShop publication, “Erik Spiekermann’s Typo Tips.” Right there in Tip #2, he summarizes the proper use of both the en and em dash and (thankfully) helps to justify all the quiet work us designers do to improve the visual appeal of the written word.

It’s nice to be in good company (and to have a resource for explanation when the curious ask why there’s a little breathing room around an en dash).