Grammar vs. Typography

Posted on May 13, 2017


I have been working on first editing, and then designing a book on Fly Fishing in the Russian Far East for a very long time, like almost a decade.  And I care. I really, really care. I built it on a grid where every single aspect of the design is scaled off of the font size. I’ve made 7 edit passes myself, had a crew of readers make another, gone through 3 book designers, and finally had a professional copy editor do one final pass once it was “in type.” (The most expensive time to do it, unfortunately.)

One thing several people pointed out, and I ignored, was that when the  Word did not correctly format em-dashes (space-dash-space o should automatically convert to em-dashes, but I find this very hit-and-miss and the alternate CTRL + minus is just too painfully slow), but instead I  got only en-dashes. Okay, if you don’t know, em-dashes replace parenthesis and colons, en-dashes are used for ranges like 4-8m deep. There are thousands of websites which will dutifully regurgitate this information.

And I read half of them, in which they said how my text currently appears in InDesign is indeed completely, 100% grammatically incorrect. So, after the copy editor also brought this up, I dutifully went through all 650pp and made the changes, one at a time because we have lots of both (and hyphens, too, which are used for compound nouns and adjectives like “twenty-years old”).

I went through and replaced them all, but I was hating the way it looked.  Clearly the em-dash was way wider than an “M” character in the font which is why it’s call an em-dash after all. (Although I’ve heard em is actually a vertical space, and an en is half that space, which makes sense as my whole grid is based on ems. I’ve also heard the vertical space is based on the character width of the em character. I only have so much research time for what is ultimately a design decision.)

Here is another example from the web:

To my eye, both of these are just terrible. In fact, it’s so bad, I’m sure I’ve never actually seen this in print, it would be screaming out in memory. So I think the designers have probably actually already quietly won this one. It’s probably font-specific (yes, that is the correct use of a hyphen, btw). Here is an image with a different font:

But I’m not changing my font.

This is the grammatical solution. But I was googling what to do if I got one of these beasts on a line end and came across a post which said that the Typographic Elements of Style said this solution was just too ugly for type and modern typography should just use a space–hyphen–em-dash (even here in WordPress I had to add symbols to grammatically correct that compound series there).  Since I actually have this book within arm’s reach, don’t ask why I didn’t go there first,  I looked it up and sure enough, my eye was vindicated. I also found another post on it somewhere where it said that ultimately it was a style decision and up to the editor, just be consistent. I lost that post so I cannot link to it at the moment.


This is the first time I’ve run across this, where grammar and typography differ. On second thought, remember when we put two spaces after a period? That was entirely for typography with monotype font.

But ultimately, I don’t want to put something in the book that I hate just because of some rule. So, I kept searching. Apparently there is a 3/4 em-dash, but I cannot find a symbol for it.  However, in InDesign I can create a character style and so this is what I did. Just for the fun of it, I put an “m” above a dash in the text and narrowed its width until it stopped hurting:

One last tweak that I found was inserting an InDesign “thin space” (Type | Insert White Space)on either side of the new improved dash.

In my book:

This really fixes my last issue, which again I’ve never to my knowledge ever seen in type, the dash touching the letters. It just doesn’t look right.

I can live with this. I might have to manually reformat every dash in the book, but if I get emails from grammarians who value rules over design, I can send them here.

Posted in: Essays, Technique, Writing