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!



April 6, 2009

Down with capitalization aggravation!

If you want to sit around and chat with like-minded folks who are concerned with the state of the English language, especially the capitalization conundrum, you better pull up a comfy chair and get yourself (and others — hey, you’re not rude) an oversized bottle of red zin, because it’s going to be a long discussion.

In a relatively fruitless effort to be short and sweet on a subject that is neither short nor sweet, here are a few (!) AP Stylebook rules. Sit back, grab your glass and enjoy.

What needs to be initial-capped:

• Internet and Web  (when referring to the World Wide Web: Web site, Web browser), no matter where it lands in the sentence

• Places and their derivatives (America, American, Americanism)

• Days of the week and months (Thursday, Saturday, May, November)

• Organizations and their abbreviations (American Kennel Club, AKC)

• Geographic areas when referred to as areas (the Northwest, the East Coast)

• Rank, position and family relationship unless preceded by my, his, their or other possessive pronouns (President Obama, Professor H. Higgins, Uncle Albert, Dr. Doolittle)

• Most titles and works of art (initial-cap the first word, last word, each important word and each pronoun/article of four or more letters), including titles of books, plays, pamphlets, periodicals, movies, radio and television programs, operas, ballets, records, tapes, CDs, sculptures and paintings, and the names of ships, airplanes and spacecraft. Some examples follow:

•    The Chicago Manual of Style

•    “On the Road”

•    “West Side Story”

•    The New Yorker

•    “There’s Something About Mary”

•    “Seinfeld”

•    “Swan Lake”

•    “Room at Arles”

•    Voyager 2

What doesn’t:

• The seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall)

• Words that indicate direction (We flew west to get to Los Angeles)

• Family relationships w/ possessive pronouns attached (my uncle Ivan)

• Multiple titles directly in front of a person’s name, even if each title on its own would normally be uppercased (J. Crew chairman and CEO Millard Drexler)

What about headlines?

Well, friends, it may as well be a crapshoot, as far as I’m concerned. The AP Stylebook explains that headlines only get the first word initial-capped, plus any proper nouns (as in someone’s name or a specific city or such). Fine. But then I check out The Washington Post’s Web site: Its headlines show every major word uppercased. Same with The New York Times’ Web site. But then I look at the Chicago Tribune’s Web site and presto! They follow AP. Same with the Los Angeles Times. And any number of other sites have any other number of alternate capitalization options. It boils down to each company’s particular or chosen style guide.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, if you follow AP, you have your answer: Uppercase only the first word and any proper nouns. If you say, “Pooh-pooh on AP,” then you’re left to your own grammatical devices. I don’t know exactly why some papers choose to follow AP and some go rogue; my guess would be that they either do not know better (highly, highly unlikely) or they simply choose to uppercase every major word because it looks good, more prominent — as a headline should look. Maybe old habits simply die hard. Who knows?

Here’s what I do know.

The ad agency I work at (Jajo, if you’re interested) likes the AP format. I’ve come around to being OK with that. I’ve got old-school-itis, in that the all-caps thing looks more headline-ish to me. However, I get why the fewer-caps style makes sense. After all, most headlines are meant to read like sentences, albeit stilted ones, so why not cap them accordingly?

So yes, that’s my recommendation: Initial-cap the first word and any proper nouns. No more, no less.

Warning: Diversion ahead!

I do have to moan a bit about one headline convention that I do not get: punctuation. To me, punctuation includes periods, question marks, exclamation points, etc. So if you’re not supposed to have ending punctuation marks, why do question marks squeeze in? Granted, they help make the point of the question. But it’s selective punctuation.

And worse than that, I sometimes see a headline that has two (count ’em, two) sentences; the first sentence ends with a period but the second doesn’t. Good grief! That bugs the bejeebers out of me. If anyone has the answer, by all means, leave a comment so I can learn to just let it go.


Happy trails!


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