Attack of the Killer Hyphens

So where's the hyphen, then? (courtesy

Frank Williams recently posted this thought on Facebook: “KFC advertises its grilled chicken has ‘five-star, fall-off-the-bone taste.’ In my experience, if chicken is falling off the bone it’s either grossly overcooked or rotten. Neither of those sounds very appetizing.” As always, Frank’s right (that’s how he drolls). In subsequent iChat, Mr. Williams also points out that taste can’t fall off a bone. Also true. My only quibbles: a missing “that” (after “advertises”), an MIA comma (after the second “bone”) and hyphens. Obviously, Frank (and KFC) are adhering to the rules of punctuation when they quadruple hyphen “fall-off-the-bone.” “Fall off-the-bone” would indicate an autumnal event. “Fall-off the bone” sounds more than slightly obscene. And “fall off the bone” sounds like something undeniably obscene that went seriously awry. But the whole hyphenation thing has me tied-up— tied up?—in knots.

Quick digression: Googling is all kinds of fun. First, there’s the fact neither Microsoft Word nor WP recognizes¬† “Googling” as a verb. Right click on the under-dotted word and you get “Goggling” (a painful affliction IMHO), “Go oggling” (an admonition my wife would not appreciate), Go-ogling (damn hyphens!), Google (for those who can’t fucking resist adding an “ing” to a noun) and Googly (right-arm leg spin bowlers need apply).

Second, I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen when I search for an expression. When I Googled “rules of hyphenation” (minus the quotation marks), I half-expected to get a correction prompt: “rules of hyphen nation” with links to a country where punctuation receives the respect it deserves, where hyphens have fought their way to the top of the political agenda. But no. Rules is rules.

Despite (or because of) their trendy refusal to put what my six-year-old calls a “finger space” between words,‘s entry on hyphenation sits at the top of the search pile. I don’t think it has much to do with the quality of their advice. “To check whether a compound noun is two words, one word, or hyphenated, you may need to look it up in the dictionary. If you can’t find the word in the dictionary, treat the noun as separate words.” Talk about a cop-out; what kind of a grammarian views “the dictionary” as a monolithic deity?

In fact, GrammarBook won’t even tell you what to do with the hyphenation conundrums they provide. “Examples: eyewitness, eye shadow, eve-opener. NOTE: All these words had to be looked up in the dictionary to know what to do with them!” Eve-opener? Wouldn’t that be Adam? And what’s with the spear? I reckon the over-excitable GrammarBook authors wouldn’t last a second in hyphen nation.

Next up Wikipedia, the user-generated compendium on life, the universe and everything (including Douglas Adams).

A definitive collection of hyphenation rules does not exist; rather, different manuals of style prescribe different usage guidelines. The rules of style that apply to dashes and hyphens have evolved to support ease of reading in complex constructions; editors often accept deviations from them that will support, rather than hinder, ease of reading.

Aside from evil editors, presumably. And someone needs to define “definitive.”

But Wikipedia’s main point—hyphenation: fuck knows—is hardly a surprise. Given the portal’s predilection for treating fact and opinion as equals, the anonymous authors’ desire to place grammar-seeking readers in a world of post-modern punctuation is no-brainer (an expression that’s is, itself, an excellent example of post-modern irony). Actually, it’s worse than that. According to the Wikid witches, hyphens are SO web -1.0.

The use of the hyphen in English compound nouns and verbs has, in general, been steadily declining. Compounds that might once have been hyphenated are increasingly left with spaces or are combined into one word. The sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed the hyphens from 16,000 entries, such as fig-leaf (now fig leaf), pot-belly (now pot belly) and pigeon-hole (now pigeonhole).

Passive construction revealing a hidden hyphen pogrom. Huh. The site eventually gets down to the rules of hyphenation, but they’ve lost my respect. Even though the [almost] Sally Field-friendly word “syllabification” beckons, I’m off to link three.

Tina Blew’s website is an extremely plain place to visit—which gives students raised in an atmosphere of grammatical austerity hope for take-no-prisoners hyphenation salvation. Ms. Blew’s home page photo reveals a Sunflower state denizen of a certain age who certainly looks like she wouldn’t take shit from anyone at any time for any reason.

Indeed. Of nonsense, there is none.

The articles on this site are intended to solve common problems of grammar and usage for those people who want answers but who do not want a lot of technical explanations.

Just some. Anyway, back to the Gallactica . . .

Google drops us in the first of Ms. Blew’s three-part treatise on hyphenation. (Wow! This country is a lot bigger than I’d imagined). We begin with hyphenated compounds, and I don’t mean magnesium stearate (’cause that’s not hyphenated). Ms. Blew begins by defining compound words: “A compound word is a combination of two or more words that serves the purpose of a single part of speech.” OK, I’m bored. But for you, I press on.

There are three possible ways of rendering compound words: they can be written separately (prime minister, high school, vacation home); they can be hyphenated (all-day event, used-car dealer, three-week vacation, tongue-lashing, know-it-all attitude); or they can be written as one word (highway, spaceship, boyfriend, racehorse, onsite, offsite, the Australian outback).

The pulse quickens! So, which is the right way?

There is a wide range of variation in the use of hyphens to join compound words. No rules govern all combinations, and the possible combinations are virtually limitless, so many of them will not be found in the dictionary. Furthermore, even dictionaries vary in their treatment of some compound words.

Chaos! So what do I do now? Ms. Blew recommends finding an authoritative dictionary (eschewing those shady back alley tomes) and slavishly adhering to their hyphenation choices. This will provide “justification for the style the writer finally settles on.” Should you be challenged by the punctuation powers-that-be (who don’t care if you end a sentence with a preposition, apparently).

Ms. Blew provides a great deal more advice on proper hyphenation; much of it confusing, all of it pompous enough to alienate several generations of aspiring writers. For example . . .

We should get rid of these out-of-date textbooks and replace them with more up-to-date materials.
Those textbooks are really out of date. The last time they were up-to-date was in 1949.

Notice that “out of date” can be left unhyphenated following the linking verb “are,” but “up-to-date” still seems to require the hyphens. On the other hand, it would also be acceptable to write “These textbooks are really out-of-date,” simply because that usage is so common, though usually a modifying compound is not hyphenated following the noun it modifies or following a linking verb (“to be” or “state of being” verb).

So despite, Ms. Blew’s obvious punctuation prowess, I’m not enough of a punctuation nerd to stick with it. Here’s hoping the fourth link’s a treat.

And so it proves: a forum post on that simply cuts and pastes a swath of the Economist’s style book. Stylebook? Style guide. Sorry. It’s a ten-point program that makes perfect sense, aside from the category name above the list of 73 hyphenated words (“TWO HYPHENATED WORDS” and yes, I need to get a life).

Better yet, the Economist style guide writer is having a laff, mate. He provides an example of a non-hyphenated three word combo, with a parenthetical parting shot: “third world war (if things get bad).” We learn that “Less-common adverbs, including all those that end -ly, are less likely to need hyphens: Never employ an expensively educated journalist.” How’s this for justification? “Fine-tooth comb (most people do not comb their teeth).”

Equally refreshing, there’s precious little of that “exception-that-proves-the-rule” malarkey, save the instruction that “forever” isn’t hyphenated when it’s an adverb preceding the verb. Whatever that means. And it’s all in good fun. “Some words that become unmanageably long with the addition of a prefix. Thus under-secretary and inter-governmental. Antidisestablishmentarianism would, however, lose its point if it were hyphenated.”

The best part of this idiot’s guide to hyphenation is a crib from the Oxford University Press style manual: “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.” Well, I’m annoyed. That’s a start, I suppose. Now, where can I get my punctuation passport stamped?

One thought on “Attack of the Killer Hyphens

  1. And I would quibble with you over your insistence on the inclusion of a redundant “that” and an unnecessary comma.

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