Space -- the Finer Frontier
by Peter Zelchenko April 10, 2009

Dear Sirs,

We've been meaning to get this off our chests for some time. The fact is that we need more spaces. We feel strongly that there's no reason to close up the spaces around an em dash in running text. We had the following discussion with Mr. Vilheim yesterday:

"But, gosh, Mr. Vilheim, can you explain why we shouldn't use the spaces?"
"You just shouldn't, that's all."
"Isn't there any reason?"
"No, and you needn't ask."
"Please, just one reason."
"Well, it's a waste of space, for one. Now, back to work."

Yes, we've been cowed into doing it for -- how long now? decades, probably -- by pedantic editors who slavishly put their heads into empty canons. To them, challenging these canons is either absurdly impossible or absurdly heretical. But doesn't the above read much easier than--how long now? decades, probably--reads?

There's a method to our madness here, sirs! (If some of you sirs are bored, you can click on some text in red. It's called a "hyperlink." Doesn't matter which -- any text is fine, and you'll be on your merry way to someplace else. We'll see you at the company Christmas party. We're sorry for taking up your time.)

Yes, sirs, there's a good reason to open the space up around em dashes: it boils down to a question of graphics. You see, lines visually draw things together. We tend to connect things with lines. Roads on maps, match-the-items exercises, bridge spars. Connecting things with lines brings--them--together--visually.

Lines are also capable of separating things. They do this best when vertical, as the em dash once was, around the Enlightenment. It was called / among many other things / a virgule / our modern-day slash / which is what the French still call a comma. But slashes can also separate things while lying down -- like this. They simply do it a lot better -- when -- there -- is -- some -- air -- between -- them. Not--when--there--is--no--air--between--them. Hence the need for extra space. We're sorry for wasting so many extra spaces in this paragraph, sirs, but it is to demonstrate our point. If you like, you can take this out of our pay envelopes.

Let's ignore for a moment, sirs, the fact that most people these days don't even know how to use the em dash in running text any more than they understand the difference between it's and its. They're afraid of even going near an em dash. But our sense of it is quite simple: in many ways, it's like a comma, only stronger. We put an incidental thought between commas, parentheses, or em dashes to inject it into the main line of thought, thoughtfully indicating varying intensities of intervention:

Jane had met Mark before, in Urbana, and hadn't been a bit nervous.
Jane had met Mark before -- in Urbana -- and hadn't been a bit nervous.
Jane had met Mark before (in Urbana) and hadn't been a bit nervous.

(Incidentally, sirs, now she's nervous.)

Isn't that odd: the dashes and parentheses sound more intrusive than the commas, but it's diffiicult to pin down which of them is strongest and in what way. There's something just "different" about them. There's something just -- different -- about them. There's something just (different) about them.

There's something just, different, about them. There's something about them, just different. Hmm. Those don't even work.

Hm? Oh. Sorry, sirs. But, sirs, sometimes we wonder if these differences are even worth worrying about. We may be better off without most of them maybe even commas. And for that matter periods After all every English punctuation mark originally was the same character or glyph two thousand years ago The Romans had only one punctuation mark called the interpoint well at least that's what Chicago signmaker and Jesuit priest Father Edward Catich the patron saint of Roman lettering called it in his practically erotic treatise on Roman lettering The Origin of the Serif We concede that the Roman empire may have collapsed from the pressure of other cultures who had evolved better varieties of punctuation.

No, we suppose we do need some punctuation. But you probably aren't aware that Mr. Vilheim does not even allow us to use real em dashes down here in the Gapers Block basement -- he gives us the cheaper typewriter double hyphens -- because they don't require all of the lavish attention that fancy em dashes do. It's a practical matter, he insists, and we suppose he's right. Who among you sirs &&$emDash$;=^} reading aficionados all &&$emDash$;^} relishes the thought of slogging through all sorts of "&&$emDash$;^}" codes &&$emDash$;^} mistranslated through how many abstruse tunnels of Internet encoding formulae? And so, we've become accustomed to using two hyphens, cheaper than one em dash.


-- -- --

Sirs, in closing, don't hate us for being passionate about our jobs! All we are asking is for a handful of extra spaces each time we write. It is not likely to add up to more than a few additional bytes in every article, we assure you. We'll use them sparingly -- we promise! It would mean so much to us if you would consider having Mr. Vilheim requisition one or two boxes of spaces for us. Mr. Peebles in Accounting knows where to order good ones at a low price. We thank you for your attention to this matter.

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