em dash

August 26, 2008

Her people were called the utkuhikhalingmiut or people of soapstone associating a people with the resources in their area. Inuk artist Jessie Oonark’s (c.1906-1983) conversational language like her art work, was difficult for next generations to comprehend because she seemed to talk and think in overlapping circles.

If her stories had been recorded they would probably have needed the em dash, a typographic device to let readers know that the writer-editor-transcriber is breaking the flow of the sentence with a thought within a thought. The reader could choose to ignore the word-thoughts between the em dashes without breaking sentence grammar or structure. The writer-speaker wanted the listener-reader to have more context so the em-dashed thought was added on. What is contained in between—in that liminal space—may well be more consequential that the sentence stripped of context.

The em-dashed content is like an impatient or inconvenient footnote. Perhaps if the storyteller could have mentioned this in the beginning in a different order with more linear structures, the em dash wouldn’t be necessary. But linear stories only work if we all share the same communal memories with common understanding on past events, places and people. Otherwise we have to have these added on thoughts—thoughts inserted into the text—that can make some conversations seem endless and quite difficult to follow.

1. Character entities for XHTML include em dashes:

mdash 8212 — em dash, U+2014 ISOpub [123]

2. “The m, em space, em quad is “a common unit of measurement in typography. Em is traditionally defined as the width of the uppercase M in the current face and point size. It is more properly defined as simply the current point size. For example, in 12-point type, em is a distance of 12 points. The em dash is a dash the length of an em is used to indicate a break in a sentence.” (Adobe Fonts > Type topics > “A glossary of typographic terms.”).

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