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I’ve read lots of guides about when to use hyphens (-) and when to use dashes (–). The usage is clear to me. And I want to stress a particular case where the hyphen is used incorrectly: “Artist - Song Name”.

I’m pretty sure the correct form is “Artist – Song Name”, yet I couldn’t find a YouTube music video which has the name written correctly. Can someone explain why is this? Like, should it even be a rule when literally no one obeys it?

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    There's no key for a dash on a computer keyboard. That's why most people don't use it. It's perfectly OK to use a hyphen instead in general typing, with just a space between the letters and the hyphen. Designers on the other hand should really use a proper dash character. The general public don't need to do this. – Billy Kerr Mar 28 at 10:53
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    Somewhat related: you are using straight quotation marks: I'm, "Artist – Song Name". But really typographic quotation marks are better: I’m, “Artist – Song Name” – Andreas Rejbrand Mar 28 at 20:17
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    Thanks for your suggestion. I edited the post accordingly. – Poder Rac Mar 28 at 21:39
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    I think that by “not on a keyboard” he meant there’s not a single key for it. On Windows, Alt+0150 yields en dash. – Poder Rac Mar 30 at 0:09
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    There's not much of a question here, it looks more like a rant to me. No one obeys it – on Youtube... – Luciano Mar 31 at 15:32
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Mainly because:

  1. The dash is not part of people's keyboard. But the weird hyphen/minus character is (I mean ideally we would use minus for minus and hyphen for hyphen but that is just how it is).

  2. Most people do not know about typography.

  3. It's not terribly wrong in the general audience's opinion either. So saying it is incorrect is slightly stretching things beyond meaning. There are no rules, they are more like guidelines. So it is not wrong per se but it is not right either.

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    And even for the people that do know about typography, dashes can be confusing. Apart from the - hyphen-minus, there is the ‐ hyphen, the − minus, ‒ figure dash, ‒ en dash, — em dash, ― horizontal bar, and last but not least﹘ small em dash. When to use which? – Mr Lister Mar 30 at 8:08
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    Not only are dashes not part of a keyboard layout, they're not part of the basic ASCII character set that many people still rely on for filenames and similar fields because that's reliable. While youtube video names may support (almost) the full range of unicode, that doesn't mean anyone's going to change from the filename on their local machine when uploading, which was probably both ASCII- and keyboard-compatible. – Chris H Mar 31 at 12:26
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There's a lot of theory about soap as well, but most people find out about washing hands in case of a global medical emergency — most people have no idea what dashes are and Youtube does not employ designers/typographers to fix names and descriptions in whatever is being uploaded — it is mass content and it is, what it is.

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I grew up in the heyday of peer-to-peer file sharing, and I first heard a lot of the bands I love now through mp3s shared by friends, pen pals, and generous strangers. Wherever they came from, most of those mp3s were labeled in the “artist - song” format, and if they weren’t I changed them to match. I think a lot of people did the same.

I can think of a few things that might’ve given the hyphen an edge over the dashes in the second half of the 1990s, when the “artist - song” format evolved.

  • Like joojaa says, I’ve never seen a physical keyboard with a dash on it.
  • In 1995, if you’d asked me to enter a character that wasn't on the keyboard, I would’ve had to open a virtual keyboard and hunt around for it. In a word processor, I would've gone to the special character palette. If there was a better way, I sure didn't know it.
  • As a result, I wasn’t even aware that Windows 95 filenames could have things like dashes in them. (They could, though! The long filename system that made “artist - song” possible for Windows users included full UTF-16 support.)
  • Mac OS filenames couldn’t have dashes until 1998, when Mac OS 8.1 introduced an extended file system with UTF-16 support.

Regardless of the reasons it evolved, I’d guess that “artist - song” has endured as a tradition, just like ligatures endured long after the scribes gave way to movable type. “Artist – song” looks as wrong to me as a capitalized text message—as wrong as “archæology” without the æ might’ve looked a hundred years ago. Our conventions of correct typography are constrained by technology and shaped by readability, but they’re maintained by tradition. That means you’ll occasionally run into conventions that clash with yours, but made more sense in another time and place. In the wild new world of the 2020s, where song labels are more often YouTube video titles than mp3 filenames, and phone and tablet keyboards are putting dashes at everyone's fingertips, maybe “artist – song” is on its way in.

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Constructs intended for machine-processing should generally use ASCII characters when practical. If a name is rendered using non-ASCII characters, it may get transformed to something else when a file is moved between systems, foiling efforts to e.g. take a list of files and import it into a table. Using consistent ASCII characters avoids such issues.

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    The restriction to ASCII characters becomes slowly less relevant with the current ubiquity of Unicode. But as any speaker of a language using characters beyond ASCII can tell you, we‘re (sadly) not yet here and mojibakes are still common – Frédéric Grosshans Mar 30 at 10:15
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    @FrédéricGrosshans: The amount of code space required just to display an arbitrary Unicode string would exceed by an order of magnitude or more the amount of code space present in many devices that are designed to display simple user-supplied texts. Further, Unicode strings have the annoying property that there isn't an unambiguous visual rendering. Any string of characters in the range 0x20-0x7E can be displayed in a way that anyone who knows that it contains only characters in that range would know the exact contents of the string. That ceases to be possible in Unicode. – supercat Mar 30 at 15:42
  • Basically, there is indeed no way to render and arbitrary Unicode string, and no one ever tries it. But you could limit yourself to a subset of of unicode (like U+0020–U+007E, which happen to be identical to ASCII, specialy with UTF8 ;-) ). Limiting oneself to ASCII is indeed convenient but have mild to severe drawbacks if the user language happens not to be English. That said, I indeed don’t think unicode is worth it if all you want to gain is the - vs – distinction – Frédéric Grosshans Apr 10 at 16:48
  • I’m genuinly curious about the «the annoying property that there isn't an unambiguous visual rendering.» ? To you speak about the fact that e.g. some Latin, Greek and Cyrillic characters look exactly the same ? – Frédéric Grosshans Apr 10 at 16:49
  • @FrédéricGrosshans: The situation is even worse than that. Within a section of normal left-to-right text, if one has a sequence of Latin letters, then a Hebrew letter and a numeric digit in either order, and then some more Latin letters, the digit will appear to the left of the Hebrew letter regardless of their order in the original text. Thus: aא5b and a5אb are a-alef-5-b and a-5-alef-b, respectively, but they render using the same glyphs with the same relative placement. – supercat Apr 10 at 17:06
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Standard usage changes with technology. Since typesetters and editors are no longer the gate keepers of published text, I am sure the ‘proper’ use of en/em dashes will change. I mean, who really cares about correct hyphenation any more? Who really knows how to hyphenate manually? A very select few.

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    I regularly typeset complicated linguistic articles for linguistic journals, written by and for linguistic professionals. They often leave comments such as "this is hyphenated improperly: "spe-cific", plz break as "spec-ific". – usr2564301 Mar 29 at 22:33

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