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A WORD, PLEASE:

The hyphen is dying, gasping and wheezing its way toward a slow and painful death, a victim of unfeeling technology and cruel public whim. Or so a Yahoo News wire story would have you believe.

“About 16,000 words have succumbed to pressures of the Internet age and lost their hyphens in a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,” according to the story re-run from the Reuters news service.

Fig leaf, hobby horse, ice cream, pin money, pot belly, test tube and water bed have all lost their hyphens and are now two-word compounds. Bumblebee, chickpea, crybaby, leapfrog, logjam, lowlife, pigeonhole, touchline and waterborne have lost their hyphens to become single words.

It’s the kind of news story that races like wildfire through the e-mail inboxes of people who work with words, amounting to a hyphen death knell in the minds of people too busy to read carefully and critically. There’s just one problem: If I open my “Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” the official backup reference for the Associated Press Stylebook and thus presumably the most-used dictionary in the newspaper business, not a single one of the examples from the article is hyphenated. Not one.

The sole clue needed to explain this discrepancy appeared in the very first word of the article — the dateline: London.

Apparently, the British have been opting for hyphenated ice-cream and hastily assembled water-beds — which they’re now abandoning. But, in a shining example of Americans’ undying pioneer spirit, we beat them to the punch years ago.

Yet, while the news of the hyphen’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated, it has not been fabricated. Indeed, in a usage that has almost nothing to do with dictionaries, the hyphen doesn’t seem to be holding up so well.

“People are not confident about using hyphens anymore; they’re not really sure what they are for,” said Angus Stevenson, editor of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the sixth edition, in the original article.

True, but bizarrely out of place in an article about dictionaries. You see, the hyphen has more than one job. Its most-famous duty is creating compound modifiers, like the one in this sentence. In other words, when a word like “offensive” and a word like “smelling” work together to form a modifier — basically, an adjective — before a noun, it’s the writer’s job to insert a hyphen: an offensive-smelling cologne. The exception: No hyphen is needed with “ly” adverbs, as in “happily married couple.” This is what people are getting at when they talk about “how” to hyphenate — what the “rules” are.

The problem is that stylebook authors have been loosening this rule because, they realize, taken too seriously it gets downright silly. Do you really need a hyphen to tell you that an orange juice drinker is a person who drinks orange juice and not an orange person who drinks any kind of juice? For this reason, style guides more and more include qualifiers like, “Use this hyphen when it helps make the meaning clearer.” People are using their own judgment and, as a result, hyphenation is in a state of chaos.

What’s more, this “rule” becomes completely useless when trying to figure out whether to hyphenate “ice cream” or “water bed.” That’s because, for these, the only question is whether a hyphen is part of the official spelling. You don’t need to know the “rule.” You just need a good dictionary.

In my experience, this is the least-known fact about hyphens: At times, they’re simply part of a word’s official spelling.

Take “water-ski.” In “Webster’s New World,” the verb “water-ski” contains a hyphen, as does the noun “water-skier.” But the actual piece of equipment does not. So a water-skier water-skis on water skis.

So if the hyphen really does die, I for one will consider it suicide.


 JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.” You can reach her at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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