I know the EM is bound to the current font size, I know EN means the half of an EM in measure, the first is called a mutton, the second a nut, awesome. I know a EM and EN spaces are the equivalent in space of an EM and EN measure. So far, so good.

That said I am wondering what are the specific functions of EM and EN spaces?

  • editorium.com/archive/spaces says (amongst other things) that the em space was used as indention at the start of a paragraph – samcarter_is_at_topanswers.xyz Aug 6 '19 at 12:19
  • Note that the same concept applies to dashes (em and en). – curious Aug 6 '19 at 13:22
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    Had a boss once who insisted on a thin space before all punctuation. Man that took forever at times :) – Scott Aug 6 '19 at 17:40
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    @Scott GREP is your friend :) – curious Aug 6 '19 at 17:55
  • Funny thing.. I now have a habit of adding the thin space anyway :) – Scott Aug 6 '19 at 18:22

There's more than EM and EN spaces (see below). These are used in advanced typesetting to create optical adjustments between elements or to avoid using repeated spaces.

So instead of typing Space multiple times to move something, you can use an EM space to have a clean file with no repeated spaces. In extreme cases you can use an EM space with a blown up Horizontal Scale (500%) to push some text really far away on the same line without using repeated spaces.

Other times they're useful to adjust spacing around EM or EN dashes. Also useful in titles, tables, chart labels, separation between left and right aligned wording, indents and so on. Also, i've seen legal documents where each sentence was followed by an EN space instead of a regular space to separate ideas better inside the same paragraph.

Later edit: you can also use these spaces for some really smart alignment tricks like this one here: https://graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/a/115602/62949

enter image description here

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    Pressing the space bar adds a word space between items which is "elastic" to enable copyfitting. It doesn't apply in fine typesetting where spaces must be defined. In typesetting (hard type) multiple em spaces were replaced by "furniture" which were strips of hard wood. A "quad" replaced 4 em spaces. These could be used in multiples, too. (I also have a letterpress and hard type.) – Stan Aug 6 '19 at 14:32

Some typographic traditions call for the use of these fractioned spaces. For example, in French.

To add to Lucian's answer, using these spaces to replace a double-space for example, will sometimes improve your workflow. For example, I typically find/change double spaces to single space from client material, but we typically need to use a double space before the zip code. Using an en space there instead makes my find/space search skip this occurence.

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    We typically use a single (word) space between elements because they are "elastic" and make copy-fitting by computer possible. The double-hit space is an artifact from a typewriter application from the last century. It no longer applies to computer applications. – Stan Aug 6 '19 at 14:36
  • @Stan I wish all clients knew that! ;) But what I'm referring to are the Canada Post norms: "There should be one space between the municipality and the province or territory, and two spaces between the province or territory and the Postal Code. If this line in the address block becomes too long, the Postal Code may be placed on the last line by itself." – curious Aug 6 '19 at 14:41
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    I think most people put it on a line by itself, but it does sometimes make for a cleaner block of text when put on the same line as the province. I guess the double-space may be helpful for detection purposes or something along those lines. – curious Aug 6 '19 at 14:54
  • For the Canada Postal Code, use a white em dash between the letter and number: LNL—NLN – Stan Aug 6 '19 at 21:59
  • @Stan the double space is before the zip code as a whole, I find a en space typically works well. I'd be afraid to use a white dash and run into issues if I reused that block in other documents – curious Aug 6 '19 at 22:56

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