Monday, February 23, 2009

Writers Should Stop Worrying About … (First in an occasional series on style points for which all writers should be granted absolution)


There are so many style points that writers think they’re SUPPOSED to know. So they’re embarrassed that they don’t know them. It’s a waste of valuable energy – energy that could be spent writing. A classic example: hyphenation.

Here, according to AP and its go-to dictionary, are some “correct” hyphenation choices.

A well-known couple
A recently married couple
A full-time worker
Joe works full time
The job is full-time
A copy-edited manuscript
A manuscript copy edited by Joe
A water-skier water-skis on water skis
Jane is a 12-year-old
Jane is 12 years old

No one expects writers to know all these. Heck, no one even expects copy editors to know all these. We have to look them up.

When it comes to hyphenation, the only things a writer needs to know are:

1. Hyphens are most commonly used to form compound modifiers that come before a noun, with the goal of avoiding confusion: “a man eating duck” vs. “a man-eating duck.”

2. Sometimes a hyphen is part of a word’s official spelling. Only the dictionary knows all these.

3. Hyphens are an art, not a science. Clarity and common sense trump the “rules.”

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Joel said...

Thanks. It helps for someone to say this. I feel at least a little absolved. I tend to over-hyphenate and I've been harassed by some of my friends.

June Casagrande said...

Copy editors, especially newer ones, overhyphenate a lot. For some reason, we really fixate on it. It took me years to realize that just because something could be hyphenated didn't mean it should.

Then, it seems, a lot of copy editors do an about-face and swing really far in the other direction, hyphenating almost nothing.

I still struggle with all this!

LL Blackwell said...

I love this new series!

And yes, hyphens are tricksy. Clarity s a great point and maybe will become my mantra when teaching grammar (to answer the question "why?") and that in turn makes flexibility easier, too.

June Casagrande said...

Exactly. I hope more people can come to understand that "what looks right" isn't as far off as they fear from "what IS right." Often, there's no line between the two at all!

Adrian Morgan said...

Where I run into difficulty with hyphenation is best illustrated with an example.

Let's suppose hypothetically that you have a grammar-related blog. My instinct tells me that the hyphen is required. But suppose your blog is not related to all grammar, but only to the grammar of the English language, in which case it is an English grammar related blog. Now where do the hyphens go?

Writing "English grammar-related blog", violates the principle that words seperated by a hyphen are more closely connected than words seperated by a space, and suggests that it's an English blog related to grammar, rather than a blog related to English grammar. So I have a problem with that hyphenation. It irks me.

So I tend to add an extra hyphen and write, "English-grammar-related blog". But this violates the principle that phrases like "English grammar" aren't hyphenated, and long hyphenated phrases in print cause all sorts of problems involving jagged edges and so on. So I have a problem with that hyphenation, too.

I expect you'd advise me to re-phrase the sentence. But what if I don't want to (or am transcribing speech)?

June Casagrande said...

Thanks for asking something I actually know an answer to. This is from "Lapsing Into a Comma," by Bill Walsh, who is/was Business Copy Desk Chief for the Washington Post:

"Hyphenation is often an all-or-nothing proposition: Even if you eschew the hyphen when 'high school' is a modifier ('high school students'), you cannot apply that logic when the modifier gains an addition. 'High school-age students' means 'school-age students who are under the influence of drugs.' It's high-school-age students.'"

That's not a written-in-stone answer. But it's a darn good one as far as I'm concerned. I would not hyphenate "The Bill Clinton era." I would not hyphenate "The Bill Clinton era policies." But I would hyphenate "The Bill-Clinton-era-inspired policies." (Assuming, of course, that rewriting is not an option.)

In other words, the need to unify a whole modifier trumps the logic that Bill Clinton his not hyphenated.


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