On the hyphen

Thursday February 17, 2005 @ 04:53 PM (UTC)

I would hesitate to name any punctuation mark more abused than the hyphen. Whilst the apostrophe, perhaps, is more widely, obviously, and painfully misused, the hyphen maintains its primacy in the department of pervasive subtle confusion. For while it is fairly simple to tell someone the apostrophe’s proper usage, and the explanation touches only on one or two of the eccentricities of our mother tongue, one finds oneself almost at a loss to explain in words what is wrong with someone’s hyphenation, or lack thereof. The hyphen is a magic symbol, able to transform nouns into adverbs and effortlessly merge two words into a chimaera. Its absence or misuse pulls subtly at the meaning of sentences, snatches clarity away, delays the mind, but does not leap up and trill ‘look at me, I’m wrooooooong!’ like so many erring punctuation marks do. Or at least they do to me, and apparently to Tycho.

I had very little formal training in punctuation. The only classes I can recall in it were a brief series of lessons on colons and semicolons and why we must never again confuse the two thank you very much in eighth grade. I very much wonder whether anyone gets formal training in punctuation these days, because my professional life seems often to consist of picking hyphens out of words and nestling them in between other ones.

Today I compiled several passages and blurbs written by several different people, and had to restandardize English in deciding which words were truly compound and which deserved hyphens. I can tell my new foes are going to be ‘on site’, ‘on-site’, and ‘onsite’; just as at my first permanent job they were ‘off topic’, ‘off-topic’, and ‘offtopic’. For some reason the same person will oscillate between these isoforms, let alone three or six different people! At my last job, every time I proofread a scientific paper I just about broke even on hyphens; pull about 13 out, plunk about 15 in. I would creep into the scientist’s offices and ask them detailed questions about their procedures and findings to determine the correct grammatical relationship of one biochemical word to another; and I would explain to them brightly why you really shouldn’t put a hyphen between an adverb and the verb it modifies.

My freshman year in high school I drew a picture of the three great gods of the Hindu pantheon. Brahma created, Shiva destroyed, and between, Lord Narayana, the great Vishnu, ‘maintaining and ordering’ creation. Long was I stymied, for how does a mediocre artist portray the act of ‘maintaining and ordering’ in a 3″×4″ space? Finally I drew him passing his hand over a jumble of lines, all the same length but jumbled in angle and distribution, crossing and leaning on each other in chaos. Where his blue hand had been, the lines appeared in tidy ranks, lined up like iron molecules in igneous rock. Sometimes, when I am up to my frontal lobes in hyphens, I remember that picture and feel that organizing short lines is my cosmic function!


As usual, Wikipedia has helpful advice on hyphen usage. The Economist Style Guide has some useful guidelines too.

There is indeed something to be said about consistency in the English language. Just flip open Webster’s Unabridged and look up electron-neutrino, electron volt, and electron tube. I rest my case.

Very informative—though I don’t entirely agree with some of their examples. ‘light-blue paint’ INDEED!

Heh! English, a language standardized by questing etymologists rather than practical grammarians… If you think your example is silly, consider the fact that ‘alright’ is not properly a word in English! Despite ‘all ready’ having become ‘already’ at least a century ago, ‘all right’ is still the proper form, not ‘alright’—though the latter is slowly gaining ground towards propriety, due to such distinctions as being used by James Joyce!

I was just sending you an electronic correspondence, when this question arrose: the word email used to be hyphenated, but no longer seems to be. Is this just laziness/ignorance on the part of typists and spellcheckers? Alternatively, are the grammatical rules regarding hyphenation being skewed in such a way that language, in its never stable nature, is changing?

Well, as I may have implied, or may have been too careless to imply, the question of hyphenation versus simple compounding is a hairy one. Some sources might see hyphenation as a way of putting a ‘new product!’ sticker on a compound word…assuring that people realize the word is new, formed of two constituent words or meanings, and think about what it means. Should the coupling prove fruitful, the words may eventually settle into a companionable closeness unmarred by any punctuation. In the case of e-mail, doubtless many people think the word has been around long enough to merit the lazy, convenient elision.

It is my own opinion that ‘email’ is, well, ugly, and ‘e-mail’ both prettier and more representative of the manner in which the word is pronounced. (C’mon, if you didn’t know what ‘email’ was, wouldn’t you say ‘EH-male’?) And it is precisely the fact that the English-speaking world is full of exceptions, confusion, and people with opinions that is the problem….

An appeal to authority (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Knuth’s basic argument is, as Felicity mentioned, that the term is old enough to shed its hyphen.

I have no aesthetic problem with “email”, and it is easier to type, so I tend to side with Knuth on the matter.

“Prettier?” You’ll have to explain that one more fully. The fact that email is easier to type would make it better for me. However, I have just consulted the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, and while it does not address the question directly, it lists it as “e-mail” in a couple of index entries. So consider me reformed: I will type e-mail from now on. Especially since there is another English word email! Contextually, it would be hard to confuse the two, but whatever.

I prefer “email”, but according to Google, “e-mail” is more widely used:

507,000,000 results
760,000,000 results

And what, pray tell, does this other word mean?

Well, “prettier” is, of course, partially a subjective opinion. I think banana slugs are prettier than warthogs—no one has to agree with me!

However, when forced to consider the question more deeply, I think it is partially that ‘e-mail’ better represents the pronunciation, as I touched on above. The hyphen clearly sets apart the e, so that it is pronounced as a letter, not a part of the word. The trendy Apple method of setting apart a prefix letter seems to work, too - I’ve never heard anyone mispronounce ‘iMac’ ‘ih-mack’ - but it only works with brand names, et cetera, because it requires capitalization. Also, it plays merry hell with the capitalization at the beginning of sentences.

Hyphenating ‘e-mail’ not only makes the ‘e’ appear to the eye as a letter and as a separate concept modifying ‘mail’, it also gives it a certain importance which is appropriate to its proper pronunciation—the ‘e’ receives the emphasis.

My but aren’t I longwinded*?

*Or ‘long-winded’. Whichever you please, both are correct.

At the same time it cannot be denied that the more similar words we have in our culture, the more puns we can appropriately wring out of our language.

And bah. Isn’t this very site insiteful of the vulgarities of standardized spellings? Sure, the whole “teh haxors roxors” movement is a pointless exercise in self-humiliation, but I’d like to think we can accept alternative spellings gracefully, as this will allow for the greater evolution of our language.

Which is to say, damn the French.

Oh, I applaud non-standardized spelling when it is non-standardized A-PURPOSE; when it represents thought, choice, and fine consideration. When things are misspelled they are misspelled.

I like some British spellings better than American; for example, ‘artefact’ looks more like it should, being the ablative of ‘skill or art’ plus the beginning of the preterite for ‘to make’—‘artefact’ is clearly ‘made by means of craft’, whereas ‘artifact’ is just a word…and I use ‘artifact’ for the evolved meaning of ‘something left in by mistake’ et cetera, because in that case it is NOT made by art.

You get the picture. I do not insist on linguistic ‘purity’—I insist on educated and mindful use of language, if not creative use.

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