A Word, Please: Decoding the hyphen

In the years I've been writing this column, I've heard from a lot of people with vivid memories about grammar lessons they got in school. Some recall teachers who had strong opinions on "whom." Others had teachers who told them not to end sentences with prepositions.

Still others recall moments when they learned about semicolons or the passive voice, or why the serial comma is mandatory or why the serial comma should be wiped from the face of the Earth. It seems that for every grammar and punctuation rule under the sun, someone has a story about a former teacher hammering home the importance of getting it right.

Well, almost every rule.

In all my years of chatting with others about grammar, punctuation, usage and writing, no one has ever recalled to me a time in school when they learned about hyphens.

I'm not sure why that is. Maybe hyphens just aren't a priority. That's a distinct possibility. But here's another: Maybe no one teaches about hyphens because no one knows them well enough to teach them.

And by "no one," I don't mean to disparage teachers. I mean that not even copy editors — the official hyphen enforcers of every publishing firm under the sun — know them well enough. Present company included. Hyphens, quite simply, refuse to be fully known.

Sure, there are simple rules governing their use. But somehow hyphens wiggle free of these bonds in a way that ensures that two editors working on the same publication and following the same in-house style book will always hyphenate differently. "No two editors use hyphens exactly alike" is a mantra that appears regularly in editing textbooks and style guides.

For example, in editing a story about a salesman for a juice grower, one copy editor would describe him as an "orange juice salesman" and another could call him an "orange-juice salesman." Both editors would be in compliance with the same style book.

This adds up to good news for anyone who worries that he hasn't mastered the hyphen: All you can do is learn a few basic rules and apply them the best you can. Those basic rules are simple: Use hyphens to form "compound modifiers" that come before the noun they modify: "well-groomed man." A compound modifier is just a cluster of two or more words that work together to describe another, just like an adjective: A good-looking car, a peach-eating grin, a black-and-white movie.

The main exception applies to adverbs that end in "ly." Most style guides agree that "happily married couple" should not be hyphenated, mainly because that "ly" adverb so clearly partners with "married" there's no danger of reader confusion.

And that's key: Most style guides tell users to hyphenate in order to "avoid confusion." If you're confident your reader will recognize "orange juice salesman" as a guy who sells orange juice and not wonder whether he sells grape and cranberry juice and who just happens to have orange skin, you can skip the hyphen.

There's also a trick some call "suspensive hyphenation," in which you leave a hyphen at the end of a word when you drop a repeated piece of information: "a gin- or vodka- or whisky-based cocktail." Just be careful not to cram them all together (a gin-or-vodka-or-whisky-based cocktail) unless they're all working together to form a single modifier (a gin-and-vodka-based cocktail).

Some verbs and nouns also contain hyphens. But all those are in the dictionary. For example, look up the noun "water ski" in "Webster's New World College Dictionary" and you'll see it's spelled without a hyphen. But be careful! The verb "water-ski" does have a hyphen, according to this particular Webster's.

The good news is that's all you need to know about hyphens. The bad news is that's all any of us can know.

-- June Casagrande is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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