A Word, Please: An error sighting brings out the grammar queen

You know how grammar buffs can be a little, well, difficult to be around? Judgmental? Quick to correct?

And you know how even when they’re being quiet you can almost hear the unspoken criticisms seeping through their pores?

Well, this grammar buff is about to take that dynamic to new heights, making the leap from simply abrasive to utterly insufferable. That’s because I, an already-devout smarty-pants, recently outsmarted one of the most authoritative sources in language: I found a mistake — or at the very least some fuzzy thinking — in the Associated Press Stylebook.

It’s in the section on hyphens, in this passage: “Many combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they occur after a noun.…‘The dress, a bluish green, was attractive on her.’ ‘She works full time.’”

If you don’t see a problem, don’t feel bad. It took me more than 15 years to catch it. But before we get into the problem, some hyphenation basics are helpful.

Hyphenation rules focus a lot on compound modifiers. The rules say to hyphenate two or more words that work together to modify another word whenever doing so makes the meaning clearer. “A man-eating lobster” needs a hyphen to distinguish a terrifying fictional beast from a guy sitting down to dinner.

The rules for hyphenating compound modifiers are very flexible.

For example, in “a full-time worker,” there’s little danger that, without the hyphen, a reader would think you meant a time worker who had a big lunch. “Time worker” isn’t really a thing, and the question of satiety seldom comes up on resumes or Craigslist job postings.

But most editors would agree that a hyphen between “full” and “time” aids comprehension here. It makes it clearer faster that “full-time” is a single concept. With the hyphen, there’s no chance that the reader will even momentarily think of “full” as a distinct idea.

When a compound modifier starts with a noun, a hyphen is even more helpful. Take the hyphen out of “I saw a hat-wearing couple” and it momentarily seems as though the noun “hat” is the object of the verb “saw,” though it’s really just part of an adjective. The true object of the verb is “couple.” The hyphen helps readers see that right away.

Conversely, in “a happily married couple,” it’s clear that the adverb modifies the following word, which is why most editing styles say not to hyphenate compounds containing “ly” adverbs.

But when the compound modifier comes after the thing it modifies, the rules are more confusing, so I recheck from time to time. And after reading the above passage countless times, I recently noticed a problem.

Here it is. In the excerpt above, after the AP guide says that it’s probably not necessary to hyphenate a compound modifier that comes after the noun it modifies, the guide uses the examples “The dress, a bluish green” and “She works full time.”

The first example shows how “a bluish-green dress,” when you flip the word order around, becomes just “bluish green.”

Fine so far. But what about that second example? Well, it’s not the same. Here the compound isn’t modifying a noun. It’s modifying a verb. “She works full time” is not an example of how to hyphenate a compound that comes after its noun because “works,” the thing it comes after and modifies, is a verb.

It’s possible to parse AP’s wording to the point where you could argue that this isn’t an error. But at the very least it’s a failed attempt at explaining how to hyphenate a modifier that comes after a noun or verb. And I caught it.

That’s why, from now on there’ll be no living with me.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the 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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