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 â€œtwenty-odd,â€ meaning â€œapproximately twenty,â€ because to say â€œtwenty odd peopleâ€ 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 â€œused car salesman,â€ which can be read in two ways unless you make a hyphenated compound out of â€œused-car.â€ The phrase â€œ50 year old kittensâ€ 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?