Did Technology Kill (and then revive) the “Em Dash”?

by Jan 1, 2019Business, Technology0 comments

Ok, be honest, do you know what an “em dash” is? If you do—and you’re not a professional writer—I am very impressed; go ahead and pat yourself on the back.

I am a native English speaker—entirely educated in the U.S.—but until very recently, didn’t know an “em dash” from a hyphen. Either I missed that punctuation lesson in high school English class, or it was just never taught or emphasized.

At this point you are probably asking yourself two questions: 1) “What the hell is an ‘em dash’ ?” and 2) “What does this have to do with technology?” Have a little patience—we will get there.

I have used an “em dash” five times in the three introductory paragraphs. It is a punctuation mark that is often used in place of a comma, colon, or parenthesis—basically any time a writer wants to abruptly set a related statement apart (like I just did) from the previous portion of the sentence. The “em dash” is roughly twice the length of a standard hyphen and gets its name from the fact that in typeset printing it is the same horizontal length as a capital “M” (hence the name “em” or “M” dash). Don’t confuse it with its shorter cousin: the “en or N dash”.

No one seems to know exactly when the “em dash” rose to prominence in writing; but we know for sure it doesn’t appear in the Bible, so some time after Gutenberg invented movable type printing in the 1440s is probably a good guess—since the name comes from the length of a typeset letter. Movable type is the system and technology of printing, on paper, that uses movable components (i.e. letters and punctuation) to reproduce the elements of a document. The movable components or blocks are typically made of some metal; that when stained with ink and imprinted on paper will render the designated letter or punctuation mark. In the days of the printing press, an “em dash” was as easy to print as the letter “A”, because you had an individual typeset block for both elements and printing one or the other required the same effort. This is where (I believe) a shift in technology comes in to play.

By the early 1900s, typewriters were in common use by writers of all skill. Typewriters operated with metal molds of letters and punctuation that the user pressed in order to print the corresponding element on a sheet of paper. However, a typewriter was limited to around 50 keys and hence not every type of punctuation could be accommodated. I am not sure who decided which keys would make it on to a typewriter—setting the precedent for computer keyboards in the future—but we know for sure the “em dash” did not make the short list. The underscore, tilda, brackets and hyphen all made the cut; but the “em dash” was conspicuously left off. If you are familiar with the phrase, “out of sight out of mind”, I believe that describes the decline of the “em dash” in writing. To be sure, the “em dash” continued to be used with typewriters, but it had to be adapted to a double hyphen (i.e. “– “) which just didn’t look the same as typeset printing.

Technology would come to the rescue many years later in the 1980s with the advent of word processing. Programs like Microsoft Word and later blogging tools such as WordPress made it possible, once again, to properly render an “em dash”, even if it wasn’t on a computer keyboard. Granted it still took a few extra commands (e.g. insert –> special characters), but with shortcut keys and autocorrect technology, printing an “em dash” was once again roughly similar to printing any other letter or punctuation mark.

So in the word processing age technology revived a once nearly dead form of punctuation. But the “em dash” still remains a bit of a mystery to all but the most adept writers and journalists. Maybe after reading this article you can join the ranks of those writing professionals, or at the very least have a conversation starter for your next cocktail party: “Hey did you know there is no em dash on a typewriter?”.