A Word, Please: Hyphens are hard to figure

Hyphens are a pain. People use them so differently that it’s impossible for anyone to use them with complete confidence.

As they say, no two editors hyphenate exactly alike, which is why I have seen both “high-school student” and “high school student” in professionally edited publications. So when I’m copy-editing an article, I don’t just have to worry how to write “high school student,” I also have to worry whether the next editor to proof the document will think I made a mistake and change it.

What’s more, hyphens seem to be falling out of vogue. Book editors, especially, seem to be avoiding them more and more. (Bucking this trend is the New Yorker, which seems to go out of its way to use commas every place possible.) Even if I were to find my own hyphen comfort zone, the fickle tides of change wouldn’t let me stay comfortable for long.

So over the years, my view of hyphens has become more and more negative. Then, last week, monkeys came to my rescue. Grammar monkeys, that is. That’s what the copy editors of the Kansas newspaper the Wichita Eagle call themselves in their popular blog, http://blogs.kansas.com/grammar, and on Twitter under the handle @GrammarMonkeys. And they have a much better attitude toward hyphens than I do, as evidenced by a February blog post titled “Why we need hyphens.”

Their examples say it all. Compare “heavy-equipment operator” to “heavy equipment operator.” Compare “small-business owner” to “small business owner.” And, the monkeys’ favorite, compare “30-odd editors” to “30 odd editors.”

As you can see, hyphens have an important job to do. They can tell us whether a business is small or its owner is. They can tell us whether the number of normal editors is approximately 30 or whether there are exactly 30 editors and they’re decidedly not normal.

This is the hyphen doing what it does best, allowing writers to form adjectives out of multiple words while assuring no one confuses your anti-child-abuse program with an anti-child abuse program.

These formations are called compound modifiers — adjectives formed with two or more words that work together to make a single statement about the noun they modify. A hat-wearing man. A one-armed bandit. A moss-covered, three-handled family credenza. You will find none of these adjectives in the dictionary, but they’re all at your fingertips if you understand the hyphen.

Most style guides add a disclaimer to their hyphenation instructions, saying that this hyphen is only necessary when it will help prevent confusion, for example when distinguishing between a man-eating lobster and a man eating lobster.

That’s why adverbs that end in “ly” don’t take a hyphen: a happily married couple, an easily taught child. The “ly” endings make it clear that the adverb modifies the adjective that immediately follows, so there’s no way you’d think of a taught child who’s also “easily” or a married couple who’s also “happily.”

But, of course, people disagree on when the hyphen is actually needed to prevent confusion. Some think an orange-juice factory must be distinguished from a juice factory that is orange, while others think “orange juice factory” is clear enough.

That’s where my frustration begins. Add to it: Hyphens aren’t just for do-it-yourself adjectives. They’re also part of the official spellings of some verbs and nouns, like self-esteem and water-ski. And for those, the only way to know whether to include a hyphen is to look them up.

In fact, dictionaries often disagree on whether hyphens belong in certain nouns and verbs. That makes them even harder to get right.

And that fast, I’m slipping from my monkey-induced hyphen high into my default state of hyphen frustration. But it sure was nice to swing with the monkeys for a little while.

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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