21 June, 2017

“By the time you read this, I will be dead.”

English is a continually evolving, living language, so it is inevitable that some aspects of it routinely become obsolete,
only to be replaced by fitter exponents of the species.

Tl;dr version
»At the time of writing, a punctuation mark that has vexed countless
writers of online content is hurtling towards extinction

»There are several reasons why the tandem hyphen is such a practical
alternative to the dash

»Even though almost nobody is going to care about this event as much
as I do, its unifying qualities echo more significant historical breakthroughs

The linguistic transformation which inspired this post appears to be sweeping the globe with such meteoric swiftness that chances are, by the time you read these words, it will pretty much be over. At the time of writing, however, the character on its way out to is not quite history yet, so I decided to frame this as more of a jisei than a eulogy, on behalf of a punctuation mark that has caused much confusion and turmoil for writers of online content.

I’m talking about the dash, of all the sodding possible things. For as long as I can remember, it has been the custom of writers in the United States to use an em dash—like this—without spaces on either side. Writers in England, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking regions used an en dash – which is nominally the width of the letter ‘n’, as its name suggests – with a space before and after it.

I have no doubt that the corpses of dashes will continue to litter printed media for quite a while yet, before the use of tandem hyphens becomes accepted as canon. But in the virtual world of online writing, the process of tearing down this little Berlin Wall of English is already well underway. Just a couple of months ago (meaning April 2017, relative to the time of writing), the dash was still standing tall, in all its sinister, graffiti-dappled majesty. Pock-marked, perhaps, but certainly intact.

Then, as surely as if formal permission had been granted, the internet descended upon this ‘wall’, in all its unthinking enthusiasm, and it’s already been reduced to something that looks more like a mountain range of broken teeth than the impenetrable barrier it once was. By the time you read this, there will probably be nothing left but a billion fist-sized chunks of concrete scattered throughout the virtual world, souvenirs of an age which is no longer real outside the memories of those who once experienced it.

Yeah, I take punctuation pretty goddamn seriously.

Dashes were never a mystery to trained writers, or to the subeditors and copy editors who polished text for printed media. By contrast, to the incalculable hordes of people who approached online copywriting from the angle of SEO principles (rather than from any kind of literary or journalistic background), there always seemed to be something arcane about them. A single hyphen looks too short, and putting spaces around it just makes things worse. Unless you know how to make an actual em dash or en dash, and how to use either option in context, whatever you did instead always looked like a mistake.

The confusion is perfectly understandable, too: there is no key dedicated to either type of dash on a default QWERTY layout. Sure, there are shortcuts in both Mac and PC formats, but it’s not like you can simply press shift+` and a ~ will appear. Ironically, that particular grapheme -- which happens to be named ‘tilde’ -- has nowhere near as much functional use in general writing as dashes do. We have slashes in both directions, we have that funny little hat thing popularly used in emoticons (which is actually called a caret), but no dashes of any kind on the keyboard! No wonder people aren’t sure how to use the damn things, if there isn’t even a straightforward way to type them.

My own rebellious style has been to side with a technique that has been the default in comic books and graphic novels for at least half a century -- and that is to use two hyphens in tandem, as I just did in this sentence. (This is not to be confused with a double hyphen, which looks more like a slanted ‘equals’ sign.) It performs the same function, as everyone who has read a graphic novel will know, and luckily I’ve never been called upon to justify this idiosyncrasy in my own writing.

It would appear that I will never have to, either -- because at the time of writing, the tandem-hyphen trend is taking the viral express elevator directly into orbit. Sites such as c|net can be reasonably expected to be early adopters, and bloggers in other fields (paid or otherwise) will tend to copy whatever looks right to them at the time. But for Forbes and even Time to be regularly using this style is a potent portent of things to come.

Last weekend, I read no less than five different articles, from four different countries, which had virtually nothing in common with one another -- except for the tandem hyphens their authors used. Even a week, a month, a year ago, I couldn’t possibly have been the only writer with a fondness for tandem hyphens, outside the printed universes of Marvel and DC (to name just two). But now, it would seem that this is an idea whose time has finally come. And as Victor Hugo is persistently misquoted as saying, that is “more powerful than all the armies of the world”.

Speaking for myself, I’m delighted that online writers are embracing this form of punctuation, with all the impetus of a digital avalanche. It’s not really a dash, but it’s more than the sum of its hyphens: you could call it a freshly minted polycharacter, born in the virtual foundry of popular enthusiasm. It is a simple, elegant and practical solution to a fundamental difficulty with online typography that was somehow never addressed -- until now.

For the quintessential writing geek that I am, bearing witness to a living language shedding its skin like this and evolving into something new by doing so, evokes a sense of historical gravity. It is a faint echo of how I felt as a child, watching the Iron Curtain’s spectacular collapse -- as epitomised by televised scenes of joyous Berliners contributing to the disintegration of that infamous Wall.

The tandem hyphen is another (albeit much more subtle) way of erasing barriers and confusion between people. It gives English-speaking writers the world over a single, straightforward way of communicating the same meaning that was once denoted by two different characters, used in different ways depending on one’s nation of origin.

And even though I cannot claim to have had a genuinely pioneering role in this quiet typographical revolution, I am honoured to have been a small but relevant part of it.

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