PEDANTRY

DASHED HOPES

We have been living in a typographic wasteland, and computers are to blame. Through sheer dumb luck of having been chosen for the original 95 characters that make up ASCII, some characters grace almost every keyboard, giving them an undeserved familiarity. Meanwhile, other characters, much more valuable from a typographic perspective, are relegated to obscurity.

You are probably cozy with the characters @, \ and ^. Try to imagine email addresses, or ASCII art, without them. They are so ingrained that it may not occur to you how rare they were before the age of computers. The architects of ASCII allocated slots for these glyphs but opted to give just one slot to the character “-”. This ambiguous little horizontal line has had to take on three part-time jobs. It does none of them well. It is a hyphen, which joins words tighter than a space. This is the symbol that distinguishes 50-odd CRANK readers from 50 odd CRANK readers. It is a dash, which separates words looser than a space. This is the symbol that lets you shift to something parenthetical—or to specify a range—and then come back afterwards. It is a minus sign, which makes numbers negative. This is the symbol that lets you talk about imaginary things like √−1.

The trouble with ASCII “-” is that it can’t fulfil all of these different typographical roles. If it’s short enough to be a hyphen, it’s too small to be a dash or a minus sign. If it’s low enough to the baseline to be a dash or a hyphen, it sits too low next to numerals when used as a minus sign.

(Once I had a Dan Brown ebook that used the same “-” character for hyphens and dashes. Reading it was horrible. When I encountered one of these hyphen-cum-dashes—and Dan Brown uses them a lot—I didn’t know whether to speed up or slow down. I dreaded them when my peripheral vision spotted them coming up on the screen.)

No longer does this poor character have to suffer, and nor do your readers. You live in a post-ASCII world, where you can write not only English, but also français and ελληνικά. It’s easy to write proper hyphens, proper dashes, proper minus signs. It’s easy to say that the forecast temperature range is −5°–−1°. It’s easy to talk about ASCII-art cows on Healesville–Koo-Wee-Rup Road. It may even—this might be less-than-easy—improve that Dan Brown ebook.

DEBORAH PICKETT (@FUTZLE), MELBOURNE

ASCII art courtesy of the standard Unix program “cowsay” by Tony Monroe (tony@nog.net).

ASCII art courtesy of the standard Unix program “cowsay” by Tony Monroe (tony@nog.net).

50-odd CRANK readers, or 50 odd CRANK readers? Also known as Doctor Botherum, an itinerant medicine vendor selling his wares on stage with the aid of assistants to a raucous crowd. Coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 1800. From the Wellcome Library, no. 20582i.

50-odd CRANK readers, or 50 odd CRANK readers? Also known as Doctor Botherum, an itinerant medicine vendor selling his wares on stage with the aid of assistants to a raucous crowd. Coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 1800. From the Wellcome Library, no. 20582i.