December 19, 2018

From the proofreader's desk: Here's to the hyphen


Each piece of punctuation has significance.

So I get frustrated when I think of AP Style — The Associated Press’ grammar and usage guide, meant to promote consistency in journalistic writing — giving the nonspecific instruction to “ditch most hyphens.”

Even before I had heard of this directive, I had somehow become the champion of the hyphen at the Herald. I had never given the mark as much thought as I do in my current position, not fully realizing the rampant abuse and neglect it’s been facing out in the cruel world.

Coworkers will allege that I sprinkle a page with hyphens for the fun of it, or that I use the mark to mess with their heads, inserting it when they leave it out and taking it out when they leave it in. I deny everything.

There is rhyme and reason to using hyphens. But the AP directive seems to say, “No one is getting it, so we’re just going to give up.”

This is not only silly thinking, but undermines all my hard work.

Just because ignorant people persist in saying a person is “80-years-old” and that I am “an excessively-nitpicky person” doesn’t mean the hyphen should be abandoned entirely.

Tip #1: Many hyphens depend on whether the words come immediately before a noun and describe it, or come after what is being described. “The 80-year-old man” or “The man is 80 years old.”

Tip #2: Never use a hyphen with an adverb ending in “ly.”

Like most punctuation marks, hyphens exist for the sake of clarity.

If, for instance, you decide you don’t feel like using a hyphen in the phrase “two story houses,” you may make people wonder what a “story house” is and why there are two of them.

Tip #3: If an adjective and a noun are used together to describe something, chances are you should use a hyphen. “Four-mile walk,” “deep-dish pizza,” “low-interest loan.” Test by seeing if either of the words can manage to describe on their own with any sense: “four walk” or “mile walk.”

So I will admit it is ironic that the clarifying hyphen’s correct usage can be anything but clear.

The grammar troll will insist that everything in the English language is perfectly black-and-white: never end a sentence with a preposition; never use a split infinitive. What is a grammar troll, you ask? Simply put, it’s a know-it-all outsider looking in at a piece of writing and seeking something to criticize. They have no professional investment in the situation; they just have nothing better to do. They are infuriating people who start sentences with something like, “Actually…,” but who are, in the end, actually not necessarily correct.

But when you deal with the nuances of the English language every day as part of your profession, red pen poised over a grammatical dilemma few ever knew could exist, you appreciate grammar more and more as an art form, not a set of strict rules.

Not that there aren’t strict rules. If you are going to break any of them, you’d better know them first. Otherwise you’ll just look like an ignoramus. (I searched for something politically correct there, and I think that suited well.)

But back to the AP directive. I probably shouldn’t be so worried about it when the whole English-speaking world — most notably social media — seems to be reeling toward the dangerous, unspoken directive of “Drop all necessary punctuation and insert random marks in nonsensical places.”

No, I am going to stick to my guns. I understand dropping the hyphen out of things like “fund-raiser” and “give-away” to make one single word, because the lovely English language develops like that. But let’s keep a little dignity along the way, and stay tasteful in our art.

If a mark can potentially elevate a sentence to a new level of clarity, precision and sophistication, by all means, let us welcome it.


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Colonel M

Touché Kimberly.

Thursday, November 30, 2017 | Report this

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