Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Hyperventilating over Hyphens

My semi-scientific poll of people riding down in the elevator confirmed my fears: People don’t think about hyphens. They use them carelessly and often aimlessly. Hyphens have become another orphan in the exodus of good grammar.

HyperventilationSo when a blog came my way totally devoted to eccentric uses of hyphens, I was all eyeballs.

While I generally try to avoid hyperventilating over hyphens, I have weighed in with staff, encouraging hyphens here, deploring them there, and fighting constantly with AutoCorrect to place them where I believed they belonged.

Winston Churchill, who knew quite a bit about writing, referred to hyphens as a “blemish to be avoided wherever possible.” The exception, Churchill note, is when “nature revolts.” That pretty well describes the world of the hyphen.

Adverbs are one of the biggest disruptive forces in the hyphen universe. People with little familiarity and even less fidelity with rules of grammar insist on sticking a hyphen between an adjective and an adverb ending in “ly.” As Churchill himself may have observed, the comely phrase “badly dressed” doesn’t require a hyphen and offends the sensibilities of people who have wasted years of their lives worrying about punctuation propriety.

HyphensOne of the most common – and appropriate – uses of the hyphen is to connect two adjectives modifying a noun; for example, a “grim-faced warrior” or “lace-trimmed gown.” No hyphen is needed for “overly anal editor,” like the one I had who made me realize a degree in English literature can be poor preparation to write a sentence using hyphens properly.

Hyphen abuse is rampant. Read just about anything and you will find hyphens misplaced and maltreated. Even well-edited publications such as The New York Times botch hyphenation.

Occasional slips become slippery slopes, providing license to less careful writers to ignore the venerable rules of hyphen use and fueling the rationalization that the world won’t come to a ghastly end because of a lowly hyphen. How sloth can seduce good sense.

True, the world may not incinerate because of incorrect hyphen, but it will be a less pleasant place to inhabit for purists.

The most obnoxious mis-use of the hyphen is its double-down usage in place of an em dash, a longer, more elegant version of the hyphen. Using two hyphens in a row to substitute for the stylish em dash is usually the result of someone being too lazy to discover the keyboard combination to produce an em dash. Sometimes the cause is raw insubordination. A pair of hyphens has the same unnerving impact on a dutiful copy editor as heavy metal rock music does on an unsuspecting listener.

Em Dash and En DashAs more people have become confused about commas, they resort to setting apart phrases in sentences with double hyphens, rather than em dashes. Before long, these phrases will be appended by a series of exclamation marks, too, with the same effect as scratching on a chalkboard.

Many words that previously required hyphens are no longer hyphenated, such as postscript and pinpoint. Post-mortem is still in the minor leagues and requires a hyphen. It must wait for future editions of the Oxford English Dictionary to become hyphen-less.

The hyphen and em dash have their own incestuous quarrel. Sometimes em dash is rendered as em-dash, in what must be the equivalent of a grammatical gotcha.

We shouldn’t overlook the en dash (aka en-dash), which is used for two words that are connected, but not intimately. The phrase “May–September” calls for an en dash, not a hyphen as  required for the romantically linked “blue-eyed beauty.”

Hyphens may not be your cup of tea, but with a little effort in your writing you can make sure they don’t become someone else’s bete noire.







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