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Hysteria over hyphens

June 20, 2017

People can get very excited over things like the presence or lack of a hyphen in “e-mail”. Most of the world is trending towards “email”; hyphens disappear over time, in favour of the closed-up form. (“Today” overtook “to-day” in frequency around 1926 in America, according to data from Google Books, and a bit later than that in Britain.) The Economist, being stylistically conservative, still prefers “e-mail”, but that may well change one day even if absolutely nobody is confused by either form.

English is a Germanic language that allows for many different kinds of compounds, including those made from two adjectives (“blue-green”), two nouns (“kitchen sink”), adjective-noun (“darkroom”), noun-adjective (“slate-blue”) and so on. But which ones should be written separately, which hyphenated and which closed up? As so often in language, those looking for perfectly clear strictures will be disappointed.

The rules are mostly unofficial ones. The shorter and more native (ie, Germanic) the roots are, the more likely they are to be closed up: you might call someone who is behaving like a fish “fishlike”. But long words behave differently: should someone behave like a cuttlefish, you are more likely to call them “cuttlefish-like”. That goes doubly for long words that came to English from French, Latin or Greek: almost no one closes up “rhinoceros-like” or “hippopotamus-like”.

These hyphens have nothing to do with grammar, and everything to do with feel, which is why people get into such rows about the marginal cases. De gustibus non est disputandum, goes the saying: “there’s no arguing about taste.” Except that people argue endlessly about taste; a truer phrase is “there’s no way of proving your case in matters of taste.” De gustibus non est probandum.

Most of The Economist’s style book entry on hyphens consists of seemingly arbitrary rulings on disputable cases: “non-existent” but “nonaligned”, “arch-rival”, but “archangel”. Still, a few patterns emerge: “archrival” looks bad because of the ungainly “rchr” series of consonants in the middle. We write “co-operate” and “re-elect” for an analogous reason: this time breaking up vowels rather than consonants that would be awkward together. The overarching rule is that, at the very least, you should be consistent, so that readers don’t find “arch-rival” and “archrival” on the same page.

But in one case in particular, connoisseurs should really insist that a hyphen is not a matter of taste. A bestselling guide to punctuation was subtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”. Punctuation pros sniggered. The Economist, like most other publications, would require a hyphen (“Zero-Tolerance”) here.

This hyphen is starkly different from the one in “arch-rival”. It has a critical grammatical function, not just a stylistic one. It tells the readers that several words are to be taken together as a single modifier. You can write “we have zero tolerance for bad punctuation,” but when “zero tolerance” is used to modify a noun, it acts a bit like an adjective. It does not become an adjective, as many people think. But taken together, as a modifier, “zero-tolerance” functions like a single word; hence the hyphen.

Reading means parsing grammar on the fly, a tricky task requiring concentration. Everything that helps with that does a favour to the reader. Strings of words with no punctuation can often be parsed in several ways. The hyphen eliminates one possibility. This not only speeds up comprehension, but in some (rare) cases, is crucial for avoiding ambiguity. The difference between a “third-world war” and a “third world war” is nothing to sniff at, and those selling a car might get rather more interest in the sale if they remember the hyphen in “a little-used car”.

This is not to be overdone. Most adjectives modified by an adverb, like “highly educated”, need no hyphen. And the company advertising a “Metal-Watering Can” on Amazon was presumably not trying to tempt rust aficionados. Fortunately, this is one rule that need not drive anyone mad: a group of words used as a single modifier should be hyphenated. Any other approach to hyphenation really should receive zero tolerance.

Source: Hysteria over hyphens

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