Where did it come from, this dash? Scouring books and the Net regarding the etymology of the word ‘dash’ throws out several sources. Having considered, I think the most likely foundation is: “I made a little dash with my quill…” From the phrase: ‘It dashes quickly’; from ‘moving quickly’ (noted c1300). That’s a nice image: a writer poised over his quill preparing the first dash.
So, it’s been around for a while: the dash. Before the typewriter there was only the hyphen (a small line to link words together) and the dash (a slightly longer line used to separate text and make the distinction between ranges of numbers and words). And then came the typewriter with its punctuation printed on keys (oh, fancy that!). One key held ‘the underscore’: used to underline words for emphasis before the option to italicise became available to anyone outside a printsetter’s, and below it ‘the hyphen’.
Are you all out there scanning your keyboards and cursing the underscore as it sinks below the mark? Where are they hiding, those elusive en’s and em’s? Long ago, if you typed two hyphens one after the other and hit the ‘enter’ key on a word processor (remember those? A typewriter with functionality) a long dash would magically appear. Some still use two hyphens together to represent a long dash; very old-hat as punctuation practice nowadays.
Common usage continued until we got the computer keyboard and the use of Ascii codes (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) in use with Hexidecimal; this progressed to use of Ascii extended codes. A whole world of symbols lurks behind your keyboard just waiting for you to press alt and another key (keys). The en-dash is alt and then 0150 and the em-dash is alt and then 0151. Note: I didn’t put alt + 0150 – I’ve been caught-out in the past by thinking too literally as well. There are squillions of codes (and changes of usage keystrokes). You can get an astounding array of symbols from using the Ascii codes. But beware: if you have fat fingers like me you may end up with any number of exotic symbols instead of your dash of preference. Just press ‘undo’ on the top toolbar and try again – and for writers using a Mac: press the ‘option’ key, then the hyphen to make an en-dash; for the em-dash: press ‘option’, then the shift key, then the hyphen.
But there are transatlantic variations of dash-usage.
-- Double-dash – old American/English version of the Em-dash. Americans use the em-dash in place of brackets (which they call parentheses). Where the British would use the en-dash, Americans prefer an em-dash with no spaces around it. Have the Americans simply carried on the ‘no spaces around hyphens’ rule over to the em-dash? Personally, I don’t like to see a lack of spaces around an em-dash – it looks as if the words have been tacked together. The spaces give a more elegant presentation of text.
Texting has made the dash popular. The dash makes a text nice and clear, separating out phrases you don’t want your recipient to miss. Just the regular ‘dash’ is available in the symbols menu on a dumb-phone. I’m not up to Smart-phone level yet – gosh, they’re expensive! – but for those that do use ‘devices’: hold down the key for the hyphen and you’ll get three choices pop up: hyphen/en-dash/em-dash.
Emails are usually seeded with dashes; making the content of the message quicker and easier to absorb. Punctuation pedants hate this – you only have to read a few of the grammar boards to realise the extent of this frothing hatred.
Yep, punctuation is changing; evolving to reflect our new requirements. It’s an exciting time for those that love to punctuate.