Bloody Well Write

October 7, 2009

Telephone numbers

Jenny, I got your number.

Here’s how the AP Stylebook folks would like to see telephone numbers in print: 123-456-7890.

Ah, hyphens. Hey — at least they dropped the parentheses around the area code. Be happy.

Now, I know this doesn’t jibe with all the designers out there. And you know what? It doesn’t necessarily jibe with me, either. I’m a fan of dots (er, periods). I would rather see this: 123.456.7890.

So I guess what I’m promoting is this:

• If you or your company says that AP rules the proverbial roost and there should be absolutely no deviation, use the hyphens in your phone numbers. (And I’m so completely OK with that, as I do believe that AP has your back nearly every time, grammatically speaking.)

• If, on the other hand, you have a designer itching at the keypad to produce funky (or just non-hyphenated) art with numbers, use periods, stars, squares or whatever else floats that designer’s boat.

Just make it readable. After all, if you’re putting a phone number in print, you probably want people to be able to decipher that number and then call it, correct? Correct.

Happy trails!



April 16, 2009

The en dash and em dash or How two goldfish came into — and quickly exited — my pre-wedding life

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love fish (as pets) and those who, uh, don’t really get it. The same might be said for dashes; some people love ’em like mad, and some people, uh, don’t really get ’em.

Me? I fall into opposite camps. I don’t really get the whole fish-as-pets thing. They’re sort of cool to watch for a while, but fish can’t snuggle. Fish can’t cheer you up by nuzzling your cheek when you’ve had a bad day. Fish can’t wake you up by walking up and down, up and down your legs.

On the other hand, I totally get dashes. I think they are fabulous. They clarify. They add visual interest. They inadvertently amuse by infuriating the designers you work with. They give your brain a tweak while you’re writing.

What’s the fuss? Heck, what’s the real story? (There is a story here, but I’ll get to the fish later.)

There are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. (Hyphens are not really dashes and are thus relegated to a separate entry.) The em dash began as the length of a “typical” m and the en dash began as the length of a “typical” n. These length conventions are not necessarily followed in these days of a gazillion font styles. When using an em dash, though, almost always include a space on each side of the dash. (Attributions are exempt.)

The em dash is used to set off parenthetical statements. Although commas and parentheses can be used for the same function, the em dash is — by far — the most emphatic separator of the three. It can also indicate a sharp transition: The coyote must attempt to catch the roadrunner — but at what cost?
The em dash can also be used for a series within a phrase: His menu listed the pies — pumpkin, blueberry and mud — that he made weekly.

Use the em dash in attributions, without a space: Oh, I don’t think I’m a lot dumber than you think that I thought I was once. —Ben Stiller as White Goodman in “Dodgeball”

The en dash is used in ranges:
• 45–50 clowns
• 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
• Ages 2–3
• November–December 1967

The en dash is also used in relationships, including compound adjective situations. These usages, however, can depend on your level of comfort in deviating from AP Stylebook guidelines. AP does not recognize en dashes as valid. So in the following instances, a plain, ol’ hyphen will suffice, but the more adventurous writers (and designers) can use the en dash for a slightly more fine-tuned approach:

• KU beat Nebraska 76–39 (whoomp!)
• New York–London flight
• A 5–4 vote

As far as I know — and that’s not very far when a PC’s concerned — there are no shortcuts to create an en or em dash on a PC. Here’s how to create the dashes via computer longhand for both a PC and a Mac:

• Go to Insert in the program menu and open up Symbol.
• Highlight the appropriate dash located there.
• Click on Insert.

Macs do have shortcuts, so you don’t have to move your mouse around through various windows.
Here’s how to create the dashes on a Mac:

En: Option+hyphen
Em: Shift+option+hyphen

Gee, I almost feel as if I could pass for IT support sometimes. Lasts for about three seconds before my head starts to implode.

So — what’s my big fish story?

Well, I was working at another ad agency in town when I became engaged (to one of the agency IT guys — OK, you got me). Our co-workers threw us a shower, and one gal — the one we all fondly referred to as Martha Stewart because she was crazy-creative in all creative endeavors — gave us a pair of goldfish. She had already named them En Dash and Em Dash, in my honor as the agency editor-proofreader. Cool, funky gift, not to be forgotten.

En Dash and Em Dash

En Dash and Em Dash in better days

I took them home in their baggies and put them into a small bowl. The next morning, I thought it would be a good idea to give them some fresh water. Fresh water is good, right? Right, I thought. I went to work and came home. My roommate told me to look at the fish, because they were “hanging out” at the bottom of the bowl. Well, they couldn’t be dead, I thought, because dead means floating, right? Right.

I looked at the bowl. Those fish weren’t floating, that’s for sure. But they were sideways. At the bottom of the bowl. Not swimming. Just … sideways. Ugh. I had killed En Dash and Em Dash, in less than 24 hours.

Imagine my horror at finding out that you can’t just use tap water for fish. How the heck was I supposed to know that, the fish virgin that I was? I felt horrible. So burial was my responsibility for these two unlucky souls. I took them to my roommate’s bathroom and — whoosh — they were gone. Just couldn’t bring myself to flush them down my own toilet. Isn’t that nuts?

I never told our Martha Stewart friend. I couldn’t bare the embarrassment, frankly. Now, almost six years later, I’m hoping that, if and when she reads this entry, she can forgive me for being such a cad. SD, I’m sorry!

OK, that’s it for today. I’m going to go re-mourn the loss of the goldfish while listening to some em dash–free Arlo.

Happy trails!


April 14, 2009

The this-is-how-to-use-a-hyphen-correctly entry

A hyphen is that short, little bugger that joins two or more words to form an adjective and, at the very same time, makes middle schoolers’ heads spin. Really, it is nothing more than a clarifier, making the very complicated English language a little less complicated for the reader. At least, that’s its intent. The writer, though, may have something else to say about it. Ahem.

Since the hyphen is trying to simplify our lives, let’s give it a chance by trying to understand where it’s coming from. (Yes, yes, “from where it is coming” is the oh-so-proper way to write but, really, who talks that way anymore? Ending in a preposition is completely acceptable for all but the highest of highbrows. Onward and upward.)

The hyphen is used to form various compound words. If in doubt about adding a hyphen to two words, look for ambiguity that may lurk: Bob will speak to small businessmen sounds as if the businessmen are either vertically challenged or small-boned; the sentence probably should read like this: Bob will speak to small-business men. If adding a hyphen would clear up a misunderstanding, the hyphen probably belongs between the two words.

The problem with this second sentence is that women are presumably not going to be in or allowed at this meeting, which raises other ethical and moral questions. If you are 100 percent sure that no women will be in the audience, leave it as is; but if women will be present, you can change it to Bob will speak to small-business men and women or Bob will speak to small-business owners. Problem solved.

Many combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they occur after a noun: He works full time. A full-time employee gets an assigned parking space.

You can also use a hyphen to avoid duplicated vowels and triple consonants: anti-intellectual, shell-like. These are tricky, though, because the AP Stylebook does not always follow Merriam-Webster’s recommended spelling.

For example, AP uses a hyphen in pre-emptive, but Merriam-Webster does not: preemptive. What’s a writer to do? I’d say to use your best judgment. My best judgment says to follow AP, except that AP is sometimes the last style guide to make a change, which leads me to ultimately recommend following Merriam-Webster’s spelling. As an added incentive, the AP Stylebook states,  “… follow Webster’s New World, hyphenating if not listed there.”  I use Merriam-Webster Online; preemptive is there, so that’s what I use.

Hyphens also help to break up a word that must be carried over to the next line due to space restrictions, such as in the short columns of a magazine article. But if you don’t have to use them, don’t, for the simple fact that they tend to clunk up the readability of the piece.

How often should you use hyphens? As often as necessary to make the copy clear and interesting. All those hyphenated words acting as adjectives can spice up your writing, that’s true. But just as too many spices can gunk up the flavor of homemade soup, so can too many hyphenated words make your copy tank. You want your writing to be interesting and engaging, not a just a display of how cleverly you can write.

That being said, I’m a fan of hyphens. Not an over-the-top, need-to-be-medicated kind of fan, but a fan nonetheless. I like to choose clarification over ambiguity. I dig creative, unexpected writing. And the inner designer in me likes the visual aspect of the joined words — sort of breaks up the flow of letters on the page (like my other good friend, the em dash — love the em dash, maybe a little too much.)

It’s time to address one of my grammar pet peeves: hyphen usage with -ly words. There are very few instances when a word ending in -ly actually needs a hyphen. Examples:

• A word ending in -ly (such as family) in which the ending -ly is not a suffix added on to make the root word an adverb or adjective: A family-friendly restaurant is correct. (Family is a root word that happens to end in -ly, so it is OK to have a hyphen follow it.)
•  The case of multiple hyphenated words, no matter if there is an -ly word included or not: Sid penned a not-so-creatively-written poem.

Other uses for the hyphen include numerals, such as to separate figures:
• Odds: The odds were 5-3.
• Ratios: The ratio was 10-to-1. It was a 10-1 ratio.
• Scores: KU won 88-64.
• Vote tabulations: The House voted 230-205.

Another rule to consider is suspensive hyphenation. It connects two words or numbers to a noun without losing the reader: He expected to have a 10- to 15-year career in pro wrestling.

Finally, there is e-mail. Yes, with a hyphen. That one, unless the stars realign and the earth swallows up logic and spits it back out as the New Word, probably ain’t gonna change. You see, e-mail stands for electronic mail. That e is a placeholder for a full word. As Bill Walsh of The Washington Post so eloquently put it in his book “Lapsing Into a Comma” (Page 16, if you’re curious):

“No initial-based term in the history of the English language has ever evolved to form a solid word — a few are split and the rest are hyphenated. Look at A-frame, B-movie, …H-bomb, I-beam, … X-ray, Y-chromosome, Z particle and scores of other such compounds.”

Take that, email.

Happy trails!


February 16, 2009

Long-distance: Can you hear me now?

Filed under: grammar — bloodywellwrite @ 10:13 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This is going to be an übershort blog entry, but it proves an important point.

The point — for me anyway — is that you can learn something new every day. Here’s what I just learned about those calls you place to friends and family who are far, far away.

Long-distance, when it refers to telephone calls, always gets a hyphen — every time. So it should really be long-distance, whether you’re using it as an adjective (I need to place a long-distance call) or an adverb (He called her long-distance). Wild, huh?

When you’re using long distance to refer to something other than a phone call, the use determines the hyphen’s necessity: She ran a long distance. They maintained a long-distance romance.

That sneaky hyphen. I had no idea.

Feel free to write in and comment on something that you learned today, grammar-related or no.

Happy trails!


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