Em dashes in transcriptions

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Rondina's picture
Em dashes in transcriptions


 One of my many pet-peeves is the way people use em dashes. When used to set off a part of a sentence, there should not be any spaces on either side of the dash. Besides that rule which very few genealogist seem to follow, I'm wondering why the 2-em dash is not used in transcriptions. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (6.90), 'A 2-em dash represents a missing word or part of a word, either omitted to disguise a name (or occasionally an expletive) or else missing from or illegible in quoted or reprinted material. When a whole word is missing, space appears on both sides of the dash. When only part of a word is missing, no space appears between the dash and the existing part (or parts) of the word; when the dash represents the end of a word, a space follows it (unless a period or other punctuation immediately follows).'  This seems like a fairly easy way of handling this situation. However, I cannot remember being taught this method. Has anyone used this method? If I use this method, would it be understood by others?  

EE's picture


Hmhh. At this rate, EE may need to set up a fourth forum for users who are punctilious about punctuation!  

Many of the vagaries we see in published transcriptions and historical writing are influenced by a researcher’s (or editor’s) preference in style guides. Your choice, Chicago Manual of Style, is indeed precise in its distinctions between the hyphen, the en dash, the em dash, the two-em dash, and the three-em dash. Other manuals—such as the Associated Press Stylebook, the MLA Handbook, and Chicago’s venerable student guide, Turabian—allow most situations to be handled by the everyday hyphen and the basic em dash. AP’s Stylebook actually calls for the use of a space before and after those em dashes.

Evidence Explained, as a guide, is not so much about style or punctuation as the understanding of sources and the analysis of evidence. EE is grounded in Chicago, the style preferred by most historians. Its variances in content occur in citations where the inclusion of more details about a source would help researchers make sounder judgments about the quality of that source. Its variances in punctuation, within citations, typically stem from the more-complex nature of the original sources that EE covers.


The Editor

ACProctor's picture

Yes, several style guides stipulate those spaces around m-dash, and that convention appears to be more prevalent in Britain than in the US. The Oxford Style Guide (2014), for instance, requires them, but bizarrely recommends the use of n-dash over m-dash rather than distinguising their individual use-cases.


mhait's picture

I am a bit curious about this usage of an em-dash. It seems inconsistent with other rules about transcription in Chicago.

Most importantly, Chicago (and most other style guides to my knowledge) require us to use square brackets "[] " to set off editorial content not present in the original. So why, then, does Chicago not use the square brackets for illegible words or parts of words?

Just for clarity's sake, this is what Chicago recommends (using completely invented text):

     Thomas J——son wrote the Declaration of Independence.

My difficulty is that there are times when two em-dashes may naturally appear in the original text. It seems more consistent to write:

     Thomas J[——]son wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Here it is clear, through the use of the accepted convention of square brackets, that the two em-dashes does not appear in the original text, but represents missing letters.

Interesting. Sounds like a question for the Subversive Copy-Editor.

bvlittle's picture

You raise an excellent point. Without those brackets; how do I know that the dash was not part of the original text? The answer is, I don't.

Brackets, properly used, provide clarity. So do editorial comments. Most documentary editors provide an explanation of the "style" that they have opted to use in their editing. This may cover things like the "silent" lowering of superscript letters or the correcting (this one bothers me) of mispelled words.

Like footnotes that provide sufficient detail to allow us to make evidentiary judgements, explanations of documentary editing techniques provide details that (hopefully) insure that the reader understands what was in and what was not in the original document. We also need to remember that not everyone brings the same level of expertise or understanding to an experience.

bvlittle's picture

Time to quit for the night; that should read ensure. When are they going to invent a spell checker that knows what I mean, not what I write.