Hater-ation for the Hyphen Nation

Have you noticed how the effects of the American Revolution are being reversed by an invasion of British scolds? The most famous, of course, is Simon Cowell, the imperious judge on "American Idol" ("Go find your vocal coach and ask for a refund.") It now seems that every talent show needs its cranky Brit on the bench.

Remember Anne Robinson, that horrid "You are the weakest link" woman, the "Queen of Mean," who looked and sounded like the love child of a vampire and a concentration camp commandant? And what about all those plump British spit-spot TV nannies brought to America to whip our children into shape?

Benny Hill, Posh Spice, and soccer hooligans notwithstanding, we Americans think of the English as makers of a more advanced civilization. But no longer. News has arrived from across the sea that the new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has hacked the hyphens off of 16,000 or so words. And it's about time.

The hyphen is the no-see-um of the language landscape, barely visible when alone, but pestilent in swarms on the page. Moreover, the hyphen is hardly ever necessary. I say "hardly ever" because when I looked up a certain word at the beginning of this paragraph, I was chagrined to see that no-see-um had been cobbled together not by one but T-W-O hyphens.

The reason the Brits give
for disassembling their Hyphen Nation is that old lexical bugaboo: a shift in usage. According to Oxford University Press project editor Angus Stevenson -- and ain't that a great name for a wordsmith, laddie -- there has been a 5 percent decline in the use of hyphens over the past 30 years. (If 5 percent becomes the tipping point for decline unto death, look over your shoulder for Dr. Kevorkian.)

As a result of this decline, these changes became desirable:

Fig-leaf is now fig leaf. Pot-belly is now pot belly. But pigeon-hole is now pigeonhole, which looks a bit crowded to me, like a subway car at rush hour (or is it rush-hour?). I applaud the leap-frog elements joining forces as leapfrog.

Without hyphens, these will become single words: bumblebee, chickpea, crybaby and logjam. These will be split in two: ice cream, hobby horse, pot belly and test tube.

What makes the British revisions so delicious, in a Yorkshire pudding sort of way, is their behind-handed-ness. It turns out that American dictionaries scraped off those unsightly barnacles editions ago, a form of cultural leadership uncharacteristic of us Yanks.

"In America they are less squeamish than we are, and do not shrink from such forms as 'coattails' and 'aftereffects'" wrote the British authors of "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage." Here's their take on the hyphen: "No two dictionaries and no two sets of style rules would be found to give consistently the same advice. There is, however, one principle that seems to command at least lip service from all authorities. This is that the hyphen is not an ornament but an aid to being understood, and should be employed only when it is needed for that purpose."

It should help us tell the difference, for example, between "a little used car" and "a little-used car."

When redundant or misplaced, the hyphen is more unsightly wrinkle than ornament. All writers I know underestimate the value of the visual aesthetics of the page. Enlightened writers should concern themselves with typeface, type size, white space, format and even with the visual effects of punctuation. I asked my colleague Sara Quinn, a brilliant page designer, which punctuation mark she found most beautiful.

"The umlaut," she said, having spent way too much time with those double dotty Swedes.

"Mine's the tilde” ~ I offered. "It's so wavy. So sexy."

I can't explain the philippic that then poured from my lips. First against the Brits:

"I hate it the way they leave punctuation outside quotation marks. Periods and commas look so cold and lonely out there. I think they deserve to be brought inside, comforted and embraced."

Then against the semicolon: "I hate the way it looks. Like a colon that's had a polyp removed."

Then against the dash: "It's the Kato Kaelin of punctuation marks. Always there. Lying around. So generic. So available."

I rushed to see what British Gramazon, Lynne Truss, had to say about the hyphen in her best-seller "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." While acknowledging the hyphen's decline, she lists a handful of useful applications, including:

  • When spelling out words: M-A-L-L-A-R-Y.
  • With certain prefixes such as pro and anti: pro-Yankee, anti-Red Sox.
  • When turning a noun phrase into an adjective: raw-meat rhetoric.
  • To prevent ugliness: de-ice, rather than deice.

Thank you, Madame Truss. May I please have another swat with the paddle?

I have yet to see a description of the most creative way for writers to use the hyphen, and that is to craft a kind of charm bracelet of language, a string of discrete words linked together for contrast, drama, or humor: The baby wailed in his I'm-wearing-the-world's-stinkiest-diaper sort of way.

To help sort all this out, I call to the witness stand, your honor, that great British author and statesman Winston Churchill: "I am in revolt about your hyphens. One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided wherever possible." He recommends that when two words can be joined together, let no hyphen put them asunder: "My feeling is that you may run them together or leave them apart, except when nature revolts."

"Beekeeper" seems like a natural union. "Seaurchin" does not.

Yes, Sir Winston, we are your allies. We will fight hyphens on the beaches. We will fight them in the fields. We will nevuh surrenduh!

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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