HYPHEN THE TERRIBLE
by John M. Floyd
As some of you know, I like to veer this column off the beaten track now and then, especially into the movie and TV world, but it’s been awhile since I strayed into Style/Grammar/Punctuationland. While poking around over there I covered (or uncovered) the topics of semicolons (April) and apostrophes (August), and although I suspect you might be giving thanks that I haven’t again wandered into that swamp, I’ve decided to celebrate Thanksgiving by doing just that. The truth is, I’ve become fascinated with some of these pesky marks of punctuation, and I can’t seem to resist offering a few observations and opinions. Lynne Truss, if no one else, would be proud of me.
The funny thing about the subject today — the hyphen — is that it’s so widely misunderstood. According to June Casagrande in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, “Most people don’t know how to use hyphens, and those who do keep making up their own rules as they go along.” And Ms. Truss says, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, that she saw the following prediction in an old style guide: “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”
But how hard can it be? It’s just a stubby dash, right? Wrong.
Rules, rules, rules
For those who enjoy this kind of thing (I’d like to wave and say hello here to Mrs. Aldy, who taught — or tried to teach — me English at Kosciusko High School), here are a few guidelines.
- when linking double- and triple-word adjectives: three-alarm fire, high-risk operation, one-horse town, easy-to-read book
- to indicate numbers and fractions and ages: sixty-four, two-thirds, ten-year-old
- to spell out words: Don’t let him have any C-A-N-D-Y
- to avoid confusion: cross-country runner, small-business man, short-story author, little-used punctuation mark
- To create a dash, by placing two hyphens next to each other
- to indicate stammering: Is that a b-b-b-bear in your yard?
- to keep spellings from looking stupid: de-ice, re-enter, shell-like, re-instated
(Another use, of course, is to divide a word at the end of a line, but because of the welcome death of typewriters this is hardly ever needed anymore.)
But wait a second . . .
Here are a couple of instances when you shouldn’t follow the generally accepted guidelines. (I found these exceptions in the Grammar Snobs book):
“The basic rule of hyphens . . . is that they’re used to form compound modifiers; that is, to link two or more words that are acting as adjectives or sometimes adverbs. Except for words ending in ‘ly.’” Example: A happily married couple.
Also, “The compound-modifier rule refers mostly to stuff that comes before a noun. After a noun, hyphens often are not needed. A well-known musician is well known.”
Patricia O’Conner agrees, in Woe Is I: “If it’s after the noun, don’t use a hyphen. Father is strong willed. My cousin is red haired. The chicken is well done. Ducks are water resistant. If it’s before the noun, use a hyphen when either of the two words wouldn’t make very much sense by itself. He’s a strong-willed father. I have a red-haired cousin. This is well-done chicken. Those are water-resistant ducks.”
Spunk and Bite, by Arthur Plotnik, talks about “Germanisms,” from the Germanic pattern of stacking modifiers in front of the thing modified. Plotnik refers to the Grow-Your-Own-Warts kit from the first Harry Potter book, and an incident that was “Ross-Perot-scare-off-the-women-and-horses crazy” from a Maureen Dowd piece in The New York Times. All of us have seen that kind of thing used in fiction, as in “My wife gave me an I-can’t-believe-you-said-that look.”
You can, however, go overboard with this. Ms. Casagrande says hyphens can be “life-sucking, mom-and-apple-pie-hating, mime-loving, nerd-fight-inciting daggers of the damned.”
But not to worry. Some writers think the hyphen’s days are numbered anyway.
The decline of a hyphen nation
To quote Lynne Truss again: “Fowler’s Modern English Usage as far back as 1930 was advising that ‘whenever reasonable’ the hyphen should be dropped, and the 2003 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of English suggests that it is headed for extinction.”
I confess that I wind up using hyphens less and less, in my fiction. As a writer, I’m usually in favor of anything that speeds up the narrative (as long as things remain clear), and one way to do that is to combine double words or hyphenated words into single words, like flyover or backorder or truckload or bottleneck. In fact, the trend seems to be that, over time, double words like “on line” eventually become hyphenated words (on-line) and then become one word (online). Remember when tomorrow was spelled to-morrow? In the 2004 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook “free-lance” suddenly became “freelance” — and why shouldn’t it? (I even recall Stephen King’s use of the combined word “bluejeans” in one of his stories. I’ve never gone quite that far, but it wouldn’t bother me a bit.)
Two final points
The first is, sometimes a hyphen is absolutely necessary. As Bill Walsh points out in The Elephants of Style, “A giant killer is a killer who is a giant, whereas a giant-killer is the killer of a giant.” I know which one I’d rather have as a next-door neighbor.
The second thing is, some sentences are just as correct with or without the hyphen. Example: There are twenty-odd people in my writers’ group.
That one’s true either way.