John McIntyre, newspaper copyeditor and proprietor of You Don't Say1 recently had some much needed advice for all of us writing online: Know when to use the em-dash.
"Em-dash" is not, as you may believe, a short-distance foot race of some kind or another. It's the long horizontal mark we use to indicate a parenthetical remark — like this one — in our text. It's also used at times to indicate dialogue:
— You mean like this?
— Yes, exactly.
Note that it is a long dash. It is not the minus-sign we use for compound words (like in "minus-sign"). Why not use the minus-sign? Because the text looks cleaner and more professional, and is easier to read with the wide dash. There really is no reason not to use it. But how do you write it when it doesn't seem to actually be on our keyboards? fear not: it's easy to write. The Wikipedia page has instructions for many systems and programs, so check it out.
Under Linux you press the Compose key, then '---'. "Compose" key? On full-size keyboards it is often the right-hand "Win" key or right-hand Alt, but you can change which key is "Compose" in your keyboard layout settings. I always set Compose to be my Caps Lock key; I never, ever actually need Caps Lock, and hitting it by mistake is annoying, so I much prefer it to work as Compose.
While you're at it, it's time you also started using ellipsis '…' rather than simply write three full stops '...'. Depending on what font you use they may look identical, but trust me, they're not. The true ellipsis is one character while the dots are three. This matters particularly when you use a fixed-width font, such as in text editors or when writing Japanese. You write it by pressing Compose, then '..'.
A couple of other useful Compose characters:
- Degree symbol '°' as in "His fever was 39.2°": press Compose then 'oo'.
- Cross product or cross mark '×', as in "1024×768": Compose then 'xx'.
- Long o 'ō' as when you write long-o Japanese words with alphabet, as in "Ōsaka": press Compose then '_' (that is shift+'-'), then 'o' or 'O'.
- Copyright symbol '©' and trademark symbol '™', as in "Navelicious© — The Go-to Website™ For Your Bellybutton Needs!": Compose then 'oc', and Compose then 'tm'.
- In case you have no Swedish vowels in your keyboard, you can still write 'å' 'ä' and 'ö': Compose then 'o' then 'a', and Compose then '"' then 'a' or 'o'.
Those are not the only characters of course, and you have many, many more if you use the "AltGr" key (may be something else on a laptop keyboard), such as '·', '÷', 'µ' and so on. It's worth looking up these key combinations for your keyboard and system; it's surprisingly useful.
And use Em-dash, OK? Give the poor minus-sign a rest.
So unfortunately one of my favourite blogs will effectively disappear from the net beginning early next month. Do take the chance to browse through his archives while you have the chance; there's a lot of good stuff there to read.