En dash = width of n?

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  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,428
    edited November 2014
    “What I'm referring to aren't just matters of some ancient world of print, but are as much a part of literary and business communications as ever before.”
    I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Just look at the curly quote fiasco and the smart quote screw-up of abbreviated numbers and rock ‘n’ roll etc.

    What changed things was removing the type house from the workflow, putting typography in the hands of graphic designers and art directors with no grammatical inclination.
  • Martin, I'm afraid that you are seeing this as a pure design issue when, in fact, it is about clarity in literature and information. Type design is not an end in itself and it's sad to think that it is now being taught as an independent discipline without much relationship to the purposes that it serves. If you start with an understanding of what the em dash and en dash do—that is, what function they have in the languages and literatures in which they are used—you might come to a different opinion than the one you now have, which is based on your own sense of visual harmony. (I wish to be clear that I am a talking here about text type, not type used in advertising or for other kinds of display, in which the grammatical aspects of typography may or may not apply.)

    Nick, I don't disagree with you for a minute. The reality has fallen far the ideal amongst many users of type, but I hope that doesn't mean that you are no longer including curly quotes and apostrophes in your fonts just because some ignoramuses don't use them.

    I don't teach, but I know many people who do, quite a few of them at major institutions. What I learned from them is that instruction in the editorial aspects of design is not part of the curriculum, or at least not a mandatory part. I don't mention this to sound superior or snobbish (like Bringhurst), but out of real concern that people are now designing typefaces without an understanding of what certain important parts of the character set actually do, and how what they do may differ in the many languages that use the Latin alphabet.
  • I don't think I am. It IS about clarity in literature and information, but there needs to be a balance between functionality and visual harmony.
    If you start with an understanding of what the em dash and en dash do—that is, what function they have in the languages and literatures in which they are used—you might come to a different opinion than the one you now have
    You're implying I'm missing something. What am I missing? In what way am I failing to acknowledge their function in the languages and literature they're used in?
    but out of real concern that people are now designing typefaces without an understanding of what certain important parts of the character set actually do
    I have to agree there. I'm currently studying graphic design and there is no editorial design practice to speak of. In fact, we barely do and learn anything with typography at all. I've been researching typography for years and that's the only reason I'm quite adequate. I'm likely the only one from my class who understands what dashes are and knows not to use hyphens. In my first year I often knew better than my teacher and even had to correct a guest teacher on his lecture three times. That shouldn't be.

    The one typeface my fellow students use almost by default is DIN. Now this has nothing to do with editorial design, but what's striking is that graphic designers aren't actually thinking about what typeface might be best for their project; they just select one of their favorites which they've seen other academy students use. I submit that has nothing to do with graphic design. The whole area of typography deserves a lot more focus, and yet the opposite is going on in my country. At every company I worked at so far I greatly improved their use of typography and even replaced their logos. I think that's odd. Why don't they have this knowledge?
  • Ben BlomBen Blom Posts: 235
    edited November 2014
    For those people who think that the relationship of names and the things to which they are applied don’t matter
    Sometimes, people overestimate the meaning (implication) of the names of things, in relationship to what those names are applied to. An example. Some people tend to believe that if a font contains a “double-storey a”, it should also contain a “double-storey g”; or if a font contains a “single-storey g”, it should also contain a “single-storey a”. Another example. If something is called “italic” (no uppercase letter), some people believe that it should be related (in some way, other than just this name) to Italy.
  • Martin, what I thought you might be missing—and perhaps you're not—is that maintaining easily distinguished proportions of the dashes and hyphen are essential to their correct use. Yes, there's some latitude, but one must be cautious. (Note the correct use of em dashes above.)

    I realize that some of these things may be cultural. As I mentioned earlier, U.S. literary and scholarly publishing tend to be quite strict about such things, whereas elsewhere, other traditions may have emerged or fallen away and other standards may be in force. In American literature, for example, there were uses of the em dash which haven't been seen for over a century, such as an em dash followed by a comma then a word space. (This was a favorite of Henry James, who was American by parentage though not by residence.)

    Type designers would do well to consult with expert users. Lately I've seen a number of text fonts with small caps at x-height, the same as lowercase. Who can make use of them and for what purpose? It's a design decision that seems detached from typographic reality.

    In another thread, I suggested that young type designers looking for work might do well to spend some time as typesetters for as large a variety of purposes as they can. It would give them a much better idea of the kinds of types that might be needed in the marketplace. Perhaps it doesn't sound as glamorous as DESIGN, but I would remind them that some very successful people in type design started there. One name that comes to mind is Erik Spiekermann.

    Spending more time as serious readers would help, too. Read old books and new ones, even on subjects you don't (or think you don't) care about. Read like a professional.
  • Wherever possible, I try to make the emdash twice the width of the tabular figures. And whenever that looks wrong, I make an /emdash.tf with that width, and include it in the tnum feature. Because in price lists with tabular figures, I want the em-dash to be useable as a substitute for two zeros.

    Luckily, in German, it is not called en- or em-dash, so I have an excuse to make them the size that looks right to the eye. :-) Seriously, I take the names as a reference to the history, and thus with a grain of salt. Words can change their meaning or parts of their meaning, and what once was true (or made sense) in lead type can be a different thing in digital type.
  • Scott-Martin (or do you prefer Scott?), thanks a lot for the information. I thought I knew exactly how the em-dash is used but I have to admit I had no idea in America there is such broad use of the glyph which demands different requirements. In fact, when it comes to the use of the em-dash I find Americans tend to abuse the hyphen more than anyone else, but then I also have to admit they're quicker to want to use the em-dash, but I don't find it acceptable to replace an em-dash with a double hyphen either way.

    From now on I think I will include a stylistic set in my typefaces so you can choose whether you want traditional or optical lengths when it comes to dashes, because I have very strong opinions on their length in everyday use which deviate from historical convention. I think a typeface like Lexicon shows that at least in the Netherlands there seems to be a preference to the rhythm and harmony of the text whereas I suspect particularly Americans will value functionality more in this case due to their broad use of the glyph with specific requirements regarding its length.

    Since this discussion I've been paying extra attention to the use of the em-dash in books and I have yet to find the historical em-dash. This might be due to ignorance or simply preference to optical dashes. I'm reading "Reading Letters" now, which uses shorter em-dashes but I also noticed initially they use spaces around the dash and halfway through the book start using the em-dash without spaces. The inconsistency can't be justified.
    Lately I've seen a number of text fonts with small caps at x-height, the same as lowercase. Who can make use of them and for what purpose?
    I can, though its application is very narrow. It's a feature in Vesper and Mota Italic calls them "petite caps" (motaitalic.com/typefoundry/fonts/vesper/opentype-features). They're a contemporary addition and shouldn't really be mixed up with small-caps as they have a different application. Rather than using it for emphasis or contrast, these petite caps are for more creative uses, similar to what you might use a monocase typeface. It's a stylistic choice rather than a functional one.
    In another thread, I suggested that young type designers looking for work might do well to spend some time as typesetters for as large a variety of purposes as they can. It would give them a much better idea of the kinds of types that might be needed in the marketplace.
    I'm all for that, but at the same time in this specific case you seem to be urging everyone to conform to the US standard. Yes, it's also the historical standard but I think in Europe we have different considerations regarding the length of the dashes so I feel it's a conscious decision to deviate from the norm rather than ignorance. If this was a practice due to ignorance, it could easily be solved with education. As it seems to be a conscious choice, I think we as type designers have to have an increased awareness of our target audience; do we want to cater to the US or the EU or do we keep both of them happy? I'm now convinced that I should be giving the US what they want as well, so a stylistic set seems to be a good choice. I'm curious to know if there are objections to that idea.
    but I would remind them that some very successful people in type design started there. One name that comes to mind is Erik Spiekermann.
    Yes, but so did Bram de Does and he designed his typefaces specifically to accommodate for what he learned about the requirements in type setting and yet his dashes deviate from historical convention as well.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,428
    I had a lot of experience in commercial design; perhaps because of that my inclination as a type designer is to question rules and conventions, and trust my eye as to what looks right.
  • kchengkcheng Posts: 8
    No, the author is wrong.

    For a long time, the en dash was a sort: it came from a standard set of extra bits that were shared across typefaces. It was half an em in width, a.k.a. half the current point size.

    When it started getting built into individual fonts, that tradition mostly continued. But not everybody follows it. In particular, some type designers note that if the typeface is particularly condensed (or expanded) it may not make sense to keep the en and em dashes at their traditional widths.
    Hi Thomas,
    I know this is an old thread, but was wondering if you could explain this a bit further. That is, in Glyphs, the em is set to 1000 units. Therefore, is the en dash just 500 units? I'm sorry if this is a dumb question. I actually also thought the en dash should be the width of the lower case n (including sidebearings). 
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 1,580
    edited August 13
    Short answer: Yes.

    Slightly Longer: 500 units out of 1000 is a good default for the en dash.

    More:

    I was originally responding to a question from James Puckett, who was citing (usage in? specification in writing?) a British book:

    Is there a British tradition of making the en dash the width of n? I am reviewing a British book and I don’t want to assume the author is wrong if this is just a British thing.

    Anyhow, the usual standard in metal type was that the em dash was the same width as an em quad (the same as the point size), which is 1000 units in a 1000-unit em space. The en dash was the same as the en quad (half the point size), or 500 units in a 1000-unit em space. John Hudson expresses some strong opinions in support of this standard. While I agree that the standards can change, I do not believe this one has, particularly.

     That said, particularly condensed or extended fonts just look wacky with standard-width em and en dashes.

     I am currently working on a variable font with a major width axis. I will make sure the regular-width masters use a standard-width em and en dash (em-size and half that). But I am going to let those two glyphs vary with the font width axis. Otherwise they would be unusable in the most condensed and extended widths.
  • kchengkcheng Posts: 8
    Thanks Thomas!
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 430
    There’s nothing wrong with that
    Except that what you've made are not em and en dashes. I really believe that fonts should contain proportional dashes of, at least, narrow, medium and wide widths. But calling any of these em and en dashes when they are no actually em- or en-width isn't the solution.
    It should be noted that American Type Founders made 3-to-em spaces, 4-to-em spaces, 5-to-em spaces, and so on, that, for some sizes of type, didn't actually go exactly that many to the square of the body size.
    Instead, they rounded them so that the width of every space, like the body width of every character, was an exact multiple of 1/4 point. This, among other things, means that you didn't need to insert one space made of rubber into every line of type to obtain justification.
    So there is precedent for "em-" things and "en-" things not being exactly as wide as they're supposed to be officially.
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