016: Hyphenate It

Updated: Jan 8


Hyphens. (So this is what Talk Paper Scissors has come to…) A teeny tiny straight line. The simplest typographic mark there is. Nothing more than a scratch on a page. Or is it…


There are no fewer than seven (yes seven!) distinct marks that look like a hyphen, designed to be used in different situations. But we’ll get to these in a minute.


In today’s episode, I’m excited to share all that I’ve learned about the wonderful world of hyphens from author Keith Houston and his excellently thorough book entitled Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. It’s a magnificently deep dive into the geekdom of signs and symbols, perfect for graphic designers, printers, and english majors alike.


I also have a really bad joke to tell, but I’ll wait until the end of this episode to tell it because I hope it will make a heck of a lot more sense by then. So please bear with me... and please be kind after my joke’s over, too. Promise?


So let’s start in the logical place of identifying the seven distinct typographical hyphen-like glyphs… but only but only one can be a true hyphen.


First, we have no fewer than four dashes, one mathematical minus sign, one “fake hyphen” (called a “ hyphen-minus”… a term which is hyphenated… so it’s a hyphenated hyphen, if you can believe such a real typographic unicorn of an oddity exists) and finally, one hyphen.


First the four dashes.


As Houston explains: “The ‘dash’ is not so much a solo artist as a quartet where each member wears the same suit but plays a different instrument.” The dash’s name is widely recognized as simply referring to the verb ‘to dash’, in the sense of striking violently.


The two most commonly used dashes are the em and en dash (spelled e-m and e-n, respectively). Em and en are typographic units of measure. They are relative units that change depending on the size of type you’re currently using. To understand the bigger picture, they’re used in conjunction with absolute units of measure, such as a centimetre or an inch, which never change. They’re absolute. An inch is an inch is an inch, whether you’re designing in 10 pt. type, 100 pt. type or 1000 pt. Type. Relative units like em and en change depending on the size of your type, while absolute units never change.


Em dashes are equivalent to an uppercase letter M in width (and in height - M’s are square). If you’re working at 10 pt. type, the length of the em dash is 10 points. An alternative, and perhaps simpler way to remember the length of an em dash is that it is equivalent in length to the point size you’re currently working in - in 24 pt. type you’ll have a 24 pt. dash. (Think of yourself as a giant letter and the point size you’re working in is your height and the length of the em dash is your arm span when your arms are stretched out to the sides, which is equivalent to your height… that’s a thing, right? I think that’s a thing anyway… hit pause to test it out.) Em dashes are used to indicate an instance of ‘aposiopesis’ (AP-o-sigh-o-pee-sis) (an abrupt change or end to speech - “What the—?“) They can also be used to sensor portions of words or entire words when doubled up. In fact, dashes were used so commonly to censor words in the 1800’s that the term ‘dash’ became the nickname for bad words themselves: What the dash did she just say?!


En dashes are equivalent to half of the em (or half the point size of the type you’re working in - 24 pt. Type means that your en dash will be 12 pts.). En dashes are used between sets of dates in place of the word ‘to’, as well as connecting compound terms (think: sister-in-law)), and much like it’s em dash counterpart, it acts as a sensor of individual characters in an offending w- -d. (To confuse matters, American and British style guides often interchange the em and en dashes; one favouring one and the other, the other. I read that as: both are correct, then!


The third dash is more exotic and it’s called a “quotation dash”, which is the longest of all the dashes and is used to denote spoken dialogue. If an author chooses to use them, each new line of dialogue has a quotation dash placed in front of it.


The final dash is called the “figure dash”, which is used to separate strings of numerals that don’t represent date ranges. For example, the dash in a phone number is a figure dash. This dash is designed to match the width of a typeface’s numerals to maintain equal width in lines of numbers. For consistency and conformity’s sake.


So there are our four distinct dashes and in which situations each is used.


Next, we’ll move on to the mathematical minus sign, which is about one third the length of an em dash. Although relatively straight forward, the true minus sign is often not used appropriately. Instead, what we most commonly see when typing is… hyphen-minus.


The hyphen-minus was born in the late nineteenth century in the transition from exclusively handwritten work to the use of typewriters. The first QWERTY keyboard (the keyboard layout we know and love today) featured a single hyphen-like character, called the hyphen-minus, which is slightly shorter than a true hyphen. The hyphen minus is a catch-all character that was a product of “the great typewriter squeeze”; there could only be so many characters available on a keyboard and a single dash is all that could be afforded, along with a comma, underline, colon, semicolon, period, ampersand, question mark and apostrophe. Now thought-of essentials like the number zero, number one or an exclamation mark weren’t present on the initial 1878 keyboard. Cleverly, the number zero had the letter O as a stand in, the number one was denoted by the letter I and an exclamation mark could be achieved by typing a period, a backspace and then an apostrophe. Exclamation marks continued to be a rarity on typewriter keyboards for nearly the next 100 years. There’s even a note in The Secretary’s Manual of 1973 explaining how to manually construct them.


In the days of typewriters, instances that required dashes longer than a hyphen-minus (such as em dashes) a double, unspaced dash was the solution. Now professional printers would have access to many additional (nearly unlimited) glyphs, above and beyond what could be squeezed onto a typewriter keyboard, so it would be the compositor’s job to transform a double hyphen in a manuscript into a proper em dash in the final printed piece… however, sometimes the double dash slipped by accidentally. In fact, there was one place that the double hyphen remains even today: comic books. Comic book dialogue employs the double hyphen. Just like Comic Sans, the double hyphen is a feature prominent in comic books, but unlike Comic Sans, double hyphens have largely stayed in the pages of comic books, while Comic Sans has wandered off to annoy documents in nearly every other domain.


Lastly in our lineup of 7 hyphen-like characters is… the hyphen. The hyphen is ever-so-slightly longer than it’s imposter, hyphen-minus. Hyphens are simply used to connect words that have combined meaning, as well as to connect broken words over two lines.


Here’s a look back on it’s evolved and shape-shifting history.


The hyphen has a long history that dates back to second-century-BC grammarian Dionysius Thrax, who catalogued the marks used to clarify emphasis, intonation and rhythms of speech. Back then, the hyphen was a bowed line (think a rounded open or closed bracket that’s tipped over, like a turtle on its shell). This sublinear hyphen hung like a hammock, drawn under two words, connecting them. Punctuation of any kind was especially handy during this stage of the written word’s history when text was written entirely without workspaces. Imagine reading long hashtags on Twitter or Instagram, but now imagine that’s how everything was written. (You think your marketing textbook is a tedious read now, how would Mr. Thrax have felt!?)


The sublinear hyphen existed for centuries and as society evolved, as did the language used to describe it. Many words that were once hyphenated were simply made into compoundwords (I love the fact that compoundwords can be written as a compoundword). And then Mr. Gutenberg entered the mix. His moveable type had “airspace” above and below each character and it proved quite difficult to insert the Greek sublinear hyphen into his typeset pages (Houston calls it “typesetting gymnastics”). The sublinear hyphen’s days were numbered and printing finally did away with what was used for centuries to combine words. But how did the hyphen as we know it today make its way into written text. The answer may lie in a hyphen’s other main purpose, which is to connect broken words that were disconnected across lines due to the constraints of the page size, type size and line length: the “marginal” hyphen. The hyphen we know and use today is the Latin doppelgänger of the Greek hyphen, which was used as a marginal hyphen to fix broken words. Marginal hyphens are necessary to help in situations where text can’t be stretched to both margins neatly without huge gaps of white space between words. Therefore, a word may need to be broken over two lines to ensure relatively equal spacing between words in a block of text.


One of the most amazing things about the very first printed book in Europe, Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible, is the fact that there was such uniformity of the text (no huge blobs of written word, accompanied by huge gaps of whitespace in between). One of the reasons for such uniformity in the marking and spacing, was that Gutenberg was not afraid to use hyphens… all. the. time. Houston says it best: “…in Gutenberg’s day the first rule of Hyphenation Club was that there are no rules”. Gutenberg used the double form hyphen, which looks like an upwardly slanted equals sign and was popular in his day. He set his hyphens outside the margin for stylistic reasons, which, by some estimations, means that he would have had to set an extra 36,000 pieces of type throughout the bible’s near 1,300 pages to accomplish this little detail. For, you see, any line of text that didn’t contain a hyphen (roughly one third contained hyphens and therefore two thirds did not) would have required a non-printing spacing character added to it so that physical blocks of type were stretched from one side of the chase to the other and locked into place.


Fast forward to today.

As I look down at my Mac’s keyboard, I’m suddenly seeing it through new eyes. I look at the single hyphen-like character on my keyboard, which has not been given any additional, dashing friends added since the first days of typewriter keyboards. In fact, the single hyphen-like horizontal glyph on my keyboard (apart from the underscore, which also existed on the original QWERTY keyboard design) is the stand-in for all types of symbols we’ve explored here… and it’s not what it appears to be.


Let’s agree that the four most commonly used hyphen-like symbols (in order from longest to shortest) are the em dash, en dash, minus sign and hyphen. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought of the hyphen-like symbol on my keyboard as a numerical minus sign (it lives happily beside the plus sign, after all), but could this symbol be an imposter? (Cue dramatic plot twist music.) Has Mrs. Addition been duped all these years? And if it’s not Mr. Minus, who is this alter ego (insert interrobang here)!?


This is not a question that kept me up at night. At least not until I began digging into this topic and I looked down at my keyboard with the realization that Mr. Minus probably isn’t who he cracked up to be. After all, if we compare him to em dash, he’s likely a third or so of his size. An em dash is equivalent to the point size used, but remember that a font’s size is larger than simply the height of the capital letters (or cap height). Instead, the height of a font is roughly a bit larger than the distance from the tallest ascender to the lowest descender.


I left my typographic ruler at the office, but with some crude measurements, comparing it against the letters on the keyboard, I can safely say our hyphen-like character in question is smaller than an em dash, it’s smaller than an en dash, so I think it is, in fact, a numerical minus sign. And they live happily ever after… but, when that key is pressed… a hyphen-minus is typed! (Whaaaaaaaat?) So by day he goes to work and parades around as a fake hyphen and by night he comes home to sleep nestled in beside his plus signed lady with the appearance of a minus sign? Wow. A double agent. A fake of a fake… THIS, I never saw coming.


I digress. No one cares about this and if you’ve stuck around this long. Thank you.


Dashing back to my original thought, the four most commonly used hyphen-like symbols are the em dash, en dash, minus sign and hyphen. To type a hyphen (or rather, hyphen-minus because this hasn’t evolved since the days of the typewriter), simply press the only hyphen-like symbol on the keyboard. To type a true numerical minus sign (and I learned this only after some deep digging on Internet message boards), the easiest way on a Mac is to call up the ‘Emojis & Symbols’ menu by typing Control Command Space. In the search menu, type ‘minus sign’ and you’ll be presented with the true minus sign (as well as ‘heavy minus sign’). For a true en dash, the shortcut on a Mac is Option Hyphen. For a true em dash, the shortcut is Shift Option Hyphen or simply hit the hyphen key twice and it will automatically connect the two and extend it to create an em dash. Got all that?


One last thing. I pulled up the ‘Emojis & Symbols’ menu again. I was curious so I typed just the word ‘minus’ and I was presented with one more, no good, nefarious, never-before heard of hyphen: the ‘fullwidth hyphen-minus’. Oh boy. Upon closer inspection it appears to be equivalent in length to an em dash and a quick Google search led me to uncover… YET ANOTHER TYPE OF HYPHEN. The small hyphen-minus. (Why, why am I doing this to myself. Just stop now, Diana. Just STOP.) It looks as though it’s equivalent to an en dash, but I can’t be sure at this point.


I know curiosity killed the cat and all that, but I am decidedly all in at this point, so I typed ‘hyphen’ into my trusty ‘Emojis & Symbols’ menu, juuuuuuuust to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and (insert em dash here) - you guessed it. More hyphens. Exactly seven MORE types of hyphens to choose from, including the hyphen bullet, non-breaking hyphen and (my personal favourite) the Katakana-Hiragana double hyphen. I did some digging as to what the heck this last one is or when it’s used, but I came up short. All I can tell you is that it looks like an equals sign (but assuredly, it’s not one.)


In fact, Houston clarifies that Unicode offers no fewer than 23 dashes for use in the Latin alphabet. My head hurts. And now probably, so does yours. I’m terribly sorry.


One very important, nay critical, thing I haven’t asked yet is: does anyone really care? Will anyone notice? I, personally, find it very difficult to tell the difference between most of these glyphs. If you were to line up all seven hyphen-like symbols in a row and ask me to pick a true hyphen out of a lineup, I’m not sure I could do it. So, to the die-hard type geeks out there, yes, using the correct hyphen-like symbol in the correct context is important. For the other 99.9999% of the world, using the hyphen-minus as a stand-in for anything hyphen-like works just as well.


If you’ll bear with me for one more minute, I promised you a bad joke. A bad joke about a hyphen. Here we go:


Three food critics walk into a restaurant. The waiter seats them at their table and introduces their signature dish. All three order it. When it arrives from the kitchen, each tries the dish one after the other. The first critic, the mathematical minus sign, took one look and said: “I give it negative five stars.” The second critic, hyphen-minus, immediately upon smelling the dish pulled out his typewriter and wrote: “This comes up short of my expectations.” Lastly, the third critic, hyphen, takes a big fork-full of food, shoves it in his mouth and quietly chews. After he’s finished, he abruptly gets up and walks out the front door. The waiter, defensive of the reactions from all the critics finally said: “ It couldn’t have been that marginal… hyphen ate it.”


I guess, sometimes, you just have to dine and dash.



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Music by Podington Bear - Cracked Nut Suite

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