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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Poorly Punctuated Passages

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-It-All: Hyphens.

It seems as if NOBODY knows how to use hyphens. I am constantly asked to edit documents with a large number of qualifiers, and they NEVER have hyphens. I am forced to figure out whether a contract is a long-standing agreement or a long standing agreement. I'm still not sure if we have three-hundred-odd employees or three hundred odd employees. Is it a man-eating shark or a man eating shark? A cold-hearted person or a cold hearted person?

And just yesterday I picked up the local paper -- which I ASSUME is edited by a professional copyeditor -- and found one of my projects described as an "anti-crack house law". I got out my Sharpie, added the missing hyphen, and felt much better. You see, it's not a house law that is anti-crack. It's a law that is anti-crack-house. An anti-crack-house law.

See what I just did? The hyphen actually means something! It's the difference between:

Here comes the pickled herring salesman.


Here comes the pickled-herring salesman.

I saw a movie poster a few months ago advertising a movie called The 40 Year-Old Virgin. I was a bit confused about this. Was there an "s" missing at the end, making it a movie about 40 infant virgins? Perhaps a spoof on the properly-punctuated The 40-Year-Old Virgin? A delightfully nasty film that would play with the boundaries of societal norms? No such luck. The marketing company was too stupid to copy-edit the five words on its poster. Or maybe they were taking their cue from the idiots who came up with Two Weeks Notice.

Hyphens join words together when they modify other words that immediately follow them, like this:

This example is from the real world. It's a real-world example.
He specializes in infectious diseases. He's an infectious-disease specialist.

Now, dear reader, I am going to take you to the next level of hyphen usage. Are you ready? Let's imagine that I need to describe the children in Michael's class by age -- except that they are NOT ALL THE SAME AGE! (Dramatic gasps all around.)

Michael's class has 22 four- to five-year-old children.

See how easy that was? There are four-year-old children and five-year-old children in the class. As a group, they are four- to five-year-old children.

You may be wondering -- what is the difference between a hyphen and a dash? I happen to be rather fond of dashes, mostly because they have a dramatic flair with a hint of pretensiousness. They also indicate that there is a separate thought that is set off from the rest of the sentence:

I pick up the local paper -- the dashes now tell you to expect a touch of scorn -- and I can only GUESS how many mistakes I will see.

I'm writing this here at home -- I have a laptop computer -- and I'm HOPING that you're smart enough to figure out that the end of this sentence relates to the first part.