Bloody Well Write

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!



January 28, 2009

RIP, Zip

Filed under: grammar,post office,punctuation — bloodywellwrite @ 9:46 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Postal addresses: They help the mail get to us faster, in a more orderly manner. They make life for the conscientious mailer something nearing hell when they’ve gone missing. And they are the final touch on holiday cards and love letters (do folks still send love letters via snail mail or just text syllable-missing conglomerations on their iPhones?) before the stamp gets crammed in the corner. They seem vital to getting your correspondence where you want it to go. So what are those last five digits at the end of an address, anyway?

The Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) code is the system of postal codes used by the United States Postal Service (USPS). In the early ’80s, four more digits were supposed to be tacked on the end of the ZIP code, determining a more specific location, but those little buggers didn’t become mandatory. Today, postal technology scans the address and determines — with Big-Brother-like precision — the destination’s exact location, so the extra four digits are more of a nicety than anything pressing.

ZIP codes are determined according to geographic location. Each digit represents a location:
First — a certain group of U.S. states (e.g., my work ZIP code starts with 6, so the post office knows that I’m either in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri or Illinois)
Second and third — a region in that group (could be a large city)
Fourth and fifth — a group of delivery addresses within the region

U.S. ZIP code zones

U.S. ZIP code zones

The East Coast has the lowest numbers (e.g., Maine, New Jersey and Puerto Rico have ZIP codes that start with 0). The ZIP codes “grow” across the country: Florida’s ZIP code starts with 3, South Dakota’s with 5, New Mexico’s with 8 and Hawaii’s with 9 (Mahalo nui loa).

Lots of interesting info, huh? Well, here’s the real reason I decided to broach this subject: I see “Zip” everywhere. Folks, it’s ZIP. It’s an acronym, so all three letters need to be uppercase letters. No exceptions when you’re referring to the postal code system — zip, zero, zilch.

One last thing, concerning formatting: Please allow only one space before the ZIP code (e.g., Lawrence, KS 66044). Two spaces is, frankly, a weird typing habit and a waste of space. Waste not, want not, right? Right.

Newman would be so proud.

Happy trails!


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