So this is what it's come to. Three or four years of reading the blogs of web designers and other assorted nerds and geeks—and yes, there is a difference—has brought on this fascination with certain typographical characters.

In particular, ever since I happened upon this post by Christopher Phin, I have been obsessed with the proper usage of the em and en dashes, especially the em. In my search for some consistent answers, it's clear that there is agreement on when to use each. But it's the how that is driving me mad.

The when

In my research, I happened upon a great article penned by Peter K Sheerin on A List Apart. He starts the discussion with a great sentence illustrating the correct usage of the em and en dashes as well as the oft–misused hyphen.

Stop! Go back and re-read the subhead above—at least 2–3 times—then let it sink in before continuing.

He then explains:

The sentence above illustrates the proper use of the hyphen and the two main types of dashes. They are not the same, and must not be confused with each other.

Here is a short summary of correct usage of each dash:

  • The en dash is used to represent a range of various types of numerical values (numbers, dates, etc.) or to point to a connection or relationship between two items.
  • The em dash is correctly used to show a change in the thought of a sentence or in a parenthetical statement that merits more attention that parentheses, commas or separate sentences. It is also commonly used to link independent clauses.

Since reading Christopher's post linked to above, I've noticed the usage everywhere. Blog posts, magazine articles, books, brochures—even my Bible. When or where to use these characters seems consistent. But how they are used differs from author to author, or publisher to publisher.

The how

This is where this post title gets it's name. Whether or not an em dash is to be used with spaces or without seems more a matter of preference. Personal if you are writing for your own blog, organizational if you write for a publication of some sort.

The entry in wikipedia for this topic gives a good summary on the space issue:

According to most American sources (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) and to some British sources (e.g., The Oxford Guide to Style), an em dash should always be set closed (not surrounded by spaces). But the practice in many parts of the English-speaking world, also the style recommended by The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, sets it open (separates it from its surrounding words by using spaces  or hair spaces (U+200A)) when it is being used parenthetically. Some writers, finding the em dash unappealingly long, prefer to use an open-set en dash. This "space, en dash, space" sequence is also the predominant style in German and French typography.

There are clearly some differences in opinion here. My observations in the last few months have shown no consistency in particular mediums either. It's not like web writers are all doing it one way while book authors or newspaper writers do it another. One magazine will print em dashes with spaces, another will not. One blogger uses the space, the next does not.

John Gruber was one of the first bloggers I started reading regularly, and I noticed the other day that he adds spaces:

One could easily (and rightly) quibble with Thurrott’s analysis in a slew of ways — that, no, comparably-equipped Macs actually cost around the same or even less than similar PC machines — but in a way he’s right.

I've long considered John knowledgeable in this area—his writings are littered with grammatical references. And at the very least, he has been consistent in this usage. Look through his archives and you'll see the same usage of the em dash since 2004.

Add to the confusion that fact that some writers will use the en dash because they feel the em is too long and what's a poor guy to do? Others will forgo either dash and just string two hyphens together.

And even popular writers seem to struggle with this usage. Paul Graham, considered by some as one of the best, purest writers on the Internet, uses em dashes with no spaces. Yet if you look as some of his earlier writings, he often used double hyphens to link a clause, as seen here:

Some believe only business people can do this­­ that hackers–– can implement software, but not design it.

So what does this all mean? Well, you don't need to worry about the exact style (or the how) of using these characteristics to be popular. Just make sure that, whichever way you display them in your writing, they are used for the right purpose (the when). The rest is just preference.

Until the last few weeks, I've been inconsistent in my usage. No longer. I'll take mine with no space—it just looks more “right” to me.

Here are list of resources I found useful in my search: