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I want my, I want my, em-dash key

The faults of the QWERTY keyboard layout have been extensively documented; it is loudly and vehemently and endlessly maledicted. The arrangement of the keys were in fact designed to inhibit typing speeds, to keep those old typewriter bars from jamming together. The curses are uttered in vain, however; a pragmatic calculus generally reaches the conclusion that the productivity hit incurred in changing the layout—requiring everyone to unlearn and relearn their typing skills—would not be adequately compensated in the long term.

QWERTY is beyond salvation, but the rest of the US 102 key layout that you are right now (statistically probably) resting a hand on is fair game, in my opinion. If, like me, you don't exactly clean your keyboard regularly, a quick glance at it is fairly illuminating.

My Home/Delete/End keys are clean as a whistle. PageUp/PageDown have a slight brownish hue, rubbed beige at their extremities. Insert is just brown. Print Screen/Scroll Lock/Pause are covered in dust. So are the function keys, except for the pristine F7 and F5. Num Lock looks distinctly forlorn. My Windows menu keys are gunky brown. It's an MS internet keyboard, so there are those ridiculous "internet keys!!!" at the top. Wide white circles surround the Volume Up/Down buttons, but the others may well have atrophied entirely. I'm not game to check.

I reckon we could easily reduce the modern US computer keyboard by about 15 keys if we really try.

It'd save some precious desk real estate. If we can get so aroused about reducing our bulky CRTs to wafer thin LCDs, surely a similar revolution seductively beckons for the ol' 102? Sure the Linux evangelists and DOS Luddites will resist, but they're welcome to use their current clackers.

Now, if we do update the keyboard, we're bound to have a few little gaps where a key has been culled and no compression of the keyboard can logically be gained. For such an eventuality, I have a wee suggestion. Actually "suggestion" is the wrong word, but the noun corresponding to "beseech" momentarily eludes me.

I want an em-dash key.

The em-dash is the long dash (the width of an "m" character) marking a parenthetical disjunction in clauses—such as this—that indicates a stronger pause than a pair of commas but a greater relevance than a pair of parentheses. It can also be used in a similar role to the semi-colon, but generally imparting greater emphasis on the subsequent clause—like this.

Right now, on a US 102, there are three ways of achieving an em-dash. Two of them are application-specific. You can hit "space dash dash space", and wait for Autocorrect in MS Word to kick in. But I don't think you should surround em-dashes with spaces (unless it is a hair space, but that's possibly a little pedantic); it's an aesthetic thing. Anyway I deposed Autocorrect years ago in a bloodless revolution—it was totalitarian and invariably wrong.

You can hit Ctrl-Alt-NumPadMinus. I did exactly that for many moons, but once again it's a peculiarity of MS Word; not a standard sequence. You can hold down Alt and punch 0151 on the NumPad—this is my present method, but it is ridiculously involved.

Why care? The em-dash is a fundamental unit of punctuation. We often fake it with a couple of hyphens, but it's dreadfully ugly. You can fake an en-dash with a hyphen, and vice versa, and nobody but a typesetter will blink. But an em-dash requires visual distinction. God forbid that the em-dash's unique function be gradually encroached upon by the comma, the semi-colon and the parenthesis, just because of an ignorant oversight at the dawn of the PC. It would be a tragic loss. There are some times when nothing less than an em-dash will do.

Am I being excessively dramatic? Isn't it a fairly obscure unit of punctuation?

Absolutely not. Go to your bookshelf, grab a book, and let it fall to a page. By my calculations, on a single page, you should find on average 1.83 of the precious little beasts.

I have reached that figure after rigourous mathematical analysis. Here was my method: I selected six books, chosen for their dissimilarities. For each, I generated a true random number within their page range. I then opened to the nominated page, and counted the instances of each major form of punctuation. The results are laid out below:

The books

  1. Sonny Terry, The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry, page 10.
  2. Deitel and Deitel, C: How to Program, page 116.
  3. Umberto Eco, Misreadings, page 137.
  4. Cyrano De Bergerac, Other Worlds, page 143.
  5. Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, The Reagan Administration's Record on Human Rights in 1987, page 46.
  6. Anais Nin, In Favour of the Sensitive Man and other essays, page 13.

Table of punctuative instances

Table of Punctuation instances on random pages in the six books listed above.

Other, less common marks did not appear at all in the six pages, and are therefore not listed. (I did include the colon, because it's clearly an important general mark.)

As you can see, in terms of frequency, the em-dash comes in at fourth, after the comma, the full stop, and the apostrophe. It shares that placing with the ellipsis, which got a very lucky break on the Umberto Eco page, and the hyphen. Note that the hyphen count includes word-breaks at the end of lines used to justify text evenly in books. In terms of consistency, the em-dash turns out a very solid performance, only failing to appear on the Human Rights page.

Is the point yet made? Can I have my em-dash key now, please?

Joseph | 20 Feb 2004

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