Massive slaughter of innocent hyphens

Fryman, one of my favourite sources for unsolicted blog fodder, sent me an article from the Globe and Mail detailing the mass genocide of 16,000 innocent hypens in the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Formerly hyphenated words will either become new compound words (pigeonhole, waterborne and chickpea) or separated into two distinct words (test tube, water bed and hobby horse.)

In many of these cases, the Oxford was merely catching up with usage: Waterborne, for example, is probably used by the majority of newspapers anyway. (But as if to prove how arbitrary this all is, the old Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors has long given waterbed as one word. Aren’t these books published by the same company?)

Of course, the Shorter Oxford retained some hyphenated phrases to avoid ambiguity: They will permit the phrase “twenty-odd,” meaning “approximately twenty,” because to say “twenty odd people” has a somewhat different meaning. Copy editors love to give examples of the ways in which missing hyphens can cause confusion; perhaps the best-known example is “used car salesman,” which can be read in two ways unless you make a hyphenated compound out of “used-car.” The phrase “50 year old kittens” will also need a hyphen somewhere if it is to make any sense.

According to the UK Telegraph (I will stop at nothing to provide you with high-quality research), Shorter Oxford editor Angus Stevenson said the hyphen has fallen victim to our inherent laziness and unwillingness to stretch out our pinkies and reach for that hyphen key in our electronic communication.

It’s been a while since I railed against the injustices of an evolving language. My latest rant on the subject was outrage at the reduction of two spaces to one after a period (link is to the old blog because your comments are actually more entertaining than the original post!) And, for what it’s worth, a year later I am still firm on this one. A period gets TWO thumb-thwacks on the space bar, not one.

I am much less perturbed about a reduction in the use of the gentle hyphen, however. (I also have more moderate views on the use of the serial comma.) As far back as the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 1911, there has been confusion about the role of the hyphen:

We have also to admit that after trying hard at an early stage to arrive at some principle that should teach us when to separate, when to hyphen, and when to unite the parts of compound words, we had to abandon the attempt as hopeless, and welter in the prevailing chaos.

I’m guilty of having at least a working knowledge of the accepted practices of hyphenation – and ignoring them for convenience’s sake. When I’m feeling persnickity, I’l go back and edit them in after the fact, most notably when talking about my three-year-old. But some days, it’s just easier to talk about my five year old, ya know?

The one place I use the hyphen rather compulsively, intentionally and against what seems to be growing convention, is in the term “e-mail.” Email just doesn’t look right to me – you need to stretch out the eeee sound with that hyphen.

What say ye, oh wise and learned bloggy peeps? Do you have even the faintest idea of how to properly use a hyphen – and do you care?

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

25 thoughts on “Massive slaughter of innocent hyphens”

  1. I’m on board with you regarding the hyphen. It really bothers me when I see it missing from a word that clearly requires it. I’m sure you’ve read, then, “Eats, Shoot and Leaves”? She has a whole chapter about the hyphen and she says very similar (and funny) things.

  2. I’m an editor. Hyphens are my friends. As are apostrophes. I’m one of those people who loved “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, so don’t get me started. Then there are the proper uses for en-dashes and em-dashes. But don’t go there. That way lies madness.

  3. I don’t know– while I agree that the hyphen has its uses, I don’t think I see the need (or the logic behind) hyphenated forms like “ice-cream” or “chick-pea”.

    See David Crystal’s “The Fight For English” for an interesting counterpoint to Truss’s polemic; he puts the language wars in historical perspective quite well.

  4. I’m a hyphen lover. I think that a well-placed hyphen does a lot toward facilitating easy comprehension. (An editor’s e-mail list I subscribe to even has an unofficial hyphen fan club called HARP [Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal]! Yeah, we’re a bunch of nerds.)

    On the other hand, overhyphenation is not helpful. And it can be so subjective — one person’s elegantly hyphenated word is another’s visual clutter. It’s sometimes hard to find a middle ground, but I like to think I do a good job with it when I’m editing.

  5. Oh dear. As a copywriter/editor, I am also a big proponent of the PROPERLY used hyphen and comma. And the Oxford is not necessarily the bible. There, I said it.

    Waterbed should be one word, and 50 year-old kittens should be separated by an en-dash, not a hyphen. And new sentences only get one space after after a period. (*ducking*)

  6. meh. hypens – i could take them or leave them.

    But i hate to tell you that i can’t stand it when people put two spaces after a period (sorry!).

    I’m sure you had to do it with typewriters, but you don’t with computers and any document that comes by my desk gets a search and replace for ‘ ‘ to ‘ ‘.

    I’m willing to agree to disagree on this one in order to stay bloggy friends…you?

  7. Cheers for you! Two spaces after a period! And hyphens where they belong to eliminate confusion on meanings. But what about the use of hyphens where they DON’T belong? My favorite, meaning the one that stands my hair up on end, is “follow-up” no matter how the words are used. Could you follow-up on that? (Now that I’ve messed up your hair as well.) (Or write a blog about how a conjunction should never be used to start a sentence?)

  8. I’ve finally adjusted to only using one space between sentences, but it wasn’t easy. I’m on the side of less hyphenation is more, except in cases of ambiguity. I don’t mind email (in fact we adopted in our style guide back in 2005) and we use website as one word.That said, I think I’m becoming more of a fan of the hyphen because I sit next to a fellow word nerd (wordnerd? word-nerd?) who loves hyphens. In many other ways I am a die-hard prescriptivist. (I’m off to read your serial comma post. I had a hard time (and still am) adjusting to using the serial comma.)

  9. Ok, just read the article about the serial comma. May I point out the lack of a hyphen in Rogers’s contract?

    “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

    Five-year terms? Or five year-terms?

  10. Oh-my-god?- Ohmigod? – OMG?!!!!! I don’t know what I’m gonna do if the world ceases to use hyphens.
    I use them ad nauseum, and most probably incorrectly. There’s an odd beauty in the way they linky-link words together.
    I also am a two space period girl. I didn’t realize we were becoming extinct as well.

  11. ok.. I’m a two-space-after-the-period fan myself, but I have a different question… Is it a hypen or a hyphen???

  12. Argh! Do you know how many times I looked at that title WITHOUT seeing the typo? Thanks, Mama V. (Double argh — I must have misspelled hyphen as hypen half a dozen times in this post. Apparently the second “h” is as extraneous as the hyphen itself!)

    Roz, it makes me just a little bit bitter that despite the extra care I take with that double-thwack, most word-processing software and blog interfaces reduce my beautiful double space to a single space.

    (And, I just LOVE how these grammar geek debates pull everyone out of the woodwork. I love my geeky grammar friends in the computer!)

  13. I like the hyphen. I think it can be confusing though. My teenager is forever asking me “is that one word or is it hyphenated?”
    I LOVE the double space after the period. It’s how I learned to type and I couldn’t stop if I wanted too.

    And, don’t I feel silly, I thought maybe you spelled hyphen without the h in Canada! You know, some of our words are different.

  14. I am all about the hyphen, but then I am also all about the serial comma. The serial comma is a MUST! How else do you know how many shirts are being talked about in the following sentences:

    “Today I bought some shirts. One each of red, blue, black and purple”. Now, if you write, “red, blue, black, and purple” you know you’ve got 4.

  15. Oh, it’s GOT to be two spaces after a period. And Blogger always, always takes out the second space. Aargh.

    Also, hyphens: I do use them, and I am a stickler about them.

    (I’m a geek. So sue me.)

  16. I love this post. It’s really geekfully delightful.

    Love live the hyphen, and, two spaces after EVERY period.

  17. I’m a hyphen junkie myself, so it’ll be tough to let go. But I never understood the double space after the period. Does it throw back to manual typesetting days? I’ve seen some centuries’ old manuscripts, and those guys needed the sentence distinction. Bloggers? Not so much. As for serial commas, I avoid them just for look of a cleaner page, to be honest (I was raised on MLA. We hate sentence clutter). If I was to edit Liz’s example, I’d start with this: “Today I bought four shirts.” That’s how people would know it was four shirts—I’d stick it right up there in the front. And conjunctions should never be used to start a sentence? But that would slash the heart out of my writing style! I think the grade school rule was in place to prevent sentence fragments, but grown-ups are allowed to play a little. Some editors might slice the “And” and “But” off my sentences above, but I’d slice back. It’s all about flow …

    I’m off topic, aren’t I? Boo-hoo! Bye, hyphen!

  18. I love hypens. And commas. I love me some commas. Especially that Oxford Comma, which they will rip from my cold, dead, word processor. I just spent several hours putting a bunch of very necessary commas and hyphens into a very long paper, and my only regret is that I was not given enough time to read it deeply enough to make sure I put in ALL the necessary commas and hyphens.

  19. PS. As far as 2 spaces after the period goes – when I was first taught HTML, I was taught that HTML ignores all spaces after the first, no matter what.

    Thus, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a two-spacer.

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