I am in the process of transcribing a text which was type-set and published in 1751. In the original text, I am coming across a lot of dashes in varying lengths which are used all throughout the text. See the images below, I have marked them on one of the pages.

Does anyone know what the meaning of these typographic devices is? Why are they used and how should they appear in the transcribed version of the text?



  • 3
    Interesting question. Looks like they are there to represent pauses; long ones after full stops, shorter ones after commas. Their use doesn't appear to be consistent though, even in this short sample. – Westside Jan 4 '17 at 17:20
  • This is interesting :) – Lucian Jan 4 '17 at 17:20
  • So much I like about this page. Firſt time, for example, I've ever ſeen such an ſt ligature (?) - in diſtinction. Can you tell us what the source text is? Can more full page scans be found on-line? – Jongware Jan 4 '17 at 17:59
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    This might be a old trick of traditional typesetting to produce a justified block of text without losing the rhythm of the individual lines (i.e. visually blocking those rivers). Very interesting question. – zeethreepio Jan 4 '17 at 18:24
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    The whole style of the author reminds me of renaissance novels, which would not really fit the year. The explanation of "humbug" does not match the explanation checked against etymological sources. Is it possible 1751 is not correct? I've seen deliberately claimed wrong dates before. If so, it might be worth researching 19th century typography. – Sebastian Jan 4 '17 at 22:45

This specimen is an excerpt from A New System of Castle Building that appears in The Student: or the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany Monthly - Volume 2 (a compendium magazine published by, you guessed it, Oxford and Cambridge Universities).

Regarding the dashes:

What we have here are visual cues in the text for purposes of reading this essay out loud (I suppose the breaks can also be emulated in your head silently reading this prose). My guess is the use of these dashes in poetry was fairly common since raconteuring was commonplace in the 18th century and there are more examples of this that a appear in poetry later in the same publication (see further examples below). The complete digital version of this edition of The Student: or the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany Monthly - Volume 2 can be found free here. In this sample, which is a spectacular specimen, the length of the dash represents the length the reader should pause and emphasizes the break in the flow of reading out loud.

The dash marks some kind of pause -- in reading aloud, one might accord it the duration of a comma, unless it is a long em-dash requiring a lengthier break. Dashes can mark the caesura of the poetic line. But let's look at a couple of examples to see just how complex the phenomenon can get.

-What is the effect of a dash in poetry? What are some examples?

Another interesting aspect that caught my attention while looking through digital version of The Student, was if we back up a page to the beginning of this essay, we'll find that it appears under a section of the magazine titled “Calliope”, which is a pretty obvious reference to the muse who presides over eloquence and epic poetry and a strong indication that what follows, is going to be some poetry or prose:

enter image description here

Prose in its simplicity and loosely defined structure is broadly adaptable to spoken dialogue

- Prose (Wikipedia entry)

Prose is the form of written language that is not organised according to formal patterns of verse. It may have some sort of rhythm and some devices of repetition and balance, but these are not governed by regularly sustained formal arrangement. The significant unit is the sentence, not the line. Hence it is represented without line breaks in writing.

- Prose vs. Poetry Definition

This leads me to believe that although Castle Building is technically classified as an essay in this publication, there is evidence that points to the author's intention of his writing to be presented as prose. Furthermore, the author is indeed Christopher Smart (submitted under the pseudonym Chimaericus Cantabrigiensis) who is most notably a poet. Regarding his writings as Chimaericus in particular :

Smart's experimentation with the comic disjunction between a lofty acedemic discourse and the everyday flow of the vernacular of the street or coffeehouse...

- Christopher Smart and Satire: 'Mary Midnight' and the Midwife (p. 86)

My initial thought was that this example was an unorthodox use of em-dashes to visually block “rivers” created by justified text. However, the earliest published style guide I could find that mentions a variety of em dashes that includes one large enough to fit the longest dashes in the sample, was in the 1911 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style Manual. Even then, is no specific mention of dash usage in poetry:

enter image description here

Here are some more poetry samples that utilize dashes from the same 1751 publication of The Student: or the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany Monthly - Volume 2. Note: The use of dashes are not as prevalent in these samples as the authors may not have been as focused as Smart was on vernacular. Additionally, these samples are written in poetic verse using formatting (i.e; line breaks) to accomplish most of the pause effects and overall rhythm:

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here


This is a specimen of print wherein the typesetter is carrying out the author's intention of employing typographical elements (i.e, dashes of varying length) as a tool to convey the cadence of the common street vernacular of the era primarily for purposes of performing this essay as prose in spoken word (read out loud).


The Student: Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany, Volume 2

Christopher Smart and Satire: 'Mary Midnight' and the Midwife

A Manual of Style, Volume 5; Volume 7

Christopher Smart - Wikipedia entry

Prose - Wikipedia entry

Calliope - Wikipedia entry

What is the effect of a dash in poetry?

Prose vs. Poetry Definition

  • 2
    Thank you for this well researched and documented answer, it was of great help. – JoSch Jan 11 '17 at 14:06
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    Thank you for the great question! Quite the rabbit hole I got myself into, but it was a blast uncovering all the details on this one. – zeethreepio Jan 11 '17 at 14:17

The dashes here can be serving two purposes. One, the expected use of em dash to indicate pause or add an afterthought. Second, the unexpect use could be as replacement for quotation marks.

Attached is an article that can highlight the use of dashes in more detail: http://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/language-linguistics-and-literary-terms/language-and-linguistics/dash

  • Note that the author already uses em-dashes, with their standard use, in, for example, ".. perceive the impoſition, — we do, — and rejoice .." The dashes in question are much longer than these. – Jongware Jan 8 '17 at 0:56
  • It is possible the shorter ones are en dashes of the time and the longer ones are em dashes. – findniya Jan 8 '17 at 1:02
  • According to Salzwedel, "The origin of the em dash is unclear. Noreen Malone, in The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash recounts speculation that the em dash has existed since the Gutenberg printing press (ca. 1450s) but she also notes that it didn’t routinely appear in print until the 1700s." (my emph.) The Enigmatic Em Dash. So em-dashes did exist in the period of this publication. “In a traditional metal font, the em was the vertical distance from the top of a piece of type to the bottom.” (also in link) – Jongware Jan 8 '17 at 1:12

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