Today I like: Dinner party leftovers
Not so much: See below
In these days of texting and quick iPhone emails, grammar is getting left in the dust. I’ll admit, my emails about playgroups and carpools and the like often lack proper AP format. Capitalization, commas, apostrophes…whoops! No time to push the shift key! I’m not sweating it, maybe because my writing life requires complete dedication to grammar rules.
Most of it works for me. Passive voice, subject verb agreement…blah, blah, I get it. Punctuation…great. Periods are functional. Who doesn’t love question marks? Exclamation marks totally have their place! And I’ve always said, “Quotation marks are the big ‘ole hugs of the punctuation world.” One seemingly innocent line, however, just irks me.
The hyphen. I often turn to Strunk and White with questions about those pesky slashes. Since hyphens cause me grief, I decided to check them out, little buggers.
According to Webster’s, a hyphen is a punctuation mark used to divide compound words, word elements or numbers. Sounds simple, right? Well, here’s the problem. There are no set rules for hyphens. Different style manuals have different usage guidelines, and overall use of the hyphen has been declining. In 2007, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. Fig-leaf became fig leaf and pigeon-hole became pigeonhole. Just this year AP went from e-mail to email.
Hyphens are often used when two words become a new word. Email and toolbar (once tool-bar) fall into these categories. A few words above (carpool and playgroup) might have once been hyphenated. Sometimes, however, it’s convention. Like jack-in-the-box, and sometimes orang-utan. It’s not gor-illa, so why orang-utan?
A word that falls into the opposite category, for me, is book club. Doesn’t it just seem like it should be one word? Book-club, someday to be bookclub? I’ll start an online (formerly on-line) petition.
Hyphen hypothesizing aside, with nouns a simple Googling will usually set you right. When you get into compound modifiers things get dicy. Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that jointly modify the meaning of another word. Here’s an easy example:
- a man-eating shark is a shark that eats humans
- a man eating shark is a man who is eating shark meat
Got it! But sometimes it’s not so obvious. The other day I typed well known. It looked weird to me. Wellknown? No, that didn’t work. But what about well-known?
So I did some research and found that with a phrase in common usage, the hyphen is usually left out. Great example: the construction high school students versus high-school students. Although the expression could be seen as ambiguous (“students of a high school” / “school students that are on drugs”), most people just get it. Well known is all good (all-good?). No one is going to assume I’m talking about a person who is healthy and also famous.
One other rule to remember about compound modifiers: Hyphens should not be used in adverb-adjective modifiers when the adverb ends in -ly. For example, quickly running river works because the adverb clearly modifies the adjective and quickly cannot modify river. However, if you uses hard instead of quickly, you might want a hyphen.
There’s more…mostly around pre-fixes and suffixes and numbers…but it’s specific to American English v/s English English v/s Pig Latin. And it’s sort of boring. I’m going to leave it at compound modifiers, and state that in general I am anti-hyphen. It is my fervent hope that the English language goes hyphen-less in the next twenty-five years.
So there’s my grammar gripe. What’s yours?