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Monday, December 03, 2007

There goes the pickled herring salesman!

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Hyphenated compound modifiers.

I am asked about hyphenated compound modifiers at least once a month. Of course, the people who ask these questions usually don't know what they're asking. They usually say something like "I've been a lawyer for 35 years and I have never ever EVER seen the phrase 'criminal justice' with a hyphen! Harrumph, harrumph!"

I usually smile sweetly and make a joke about how leaving out the hyphen in "criminal-justice system" would be playing right into our critics' hands. Then I grumpily remove the hyphen rather than argue for the next half hour. I do this only because I know that there are only a few people who would argue that the justice system is itself criminal, and they are not good enough at grammar to notice the error.

We are all a long way from total agreement on hyphenated compound modifiers, even among people who are generally very good at grammar. This is because sometimes you should use a hyphen, sometimes you shouldn't, and sometimes it doesn't really matter. It confuses people, and in their confusion they decide that hyphens make the sentence look cluttered.

A good rule of thumb is that even though you sometimes don't really need a hyphen, you won't go wrong by using one if it's truly optional. This will reduce the uncertainty your readers will have when you use phrases that really don't need hyphens. For example, one day you'll want to say something like "We have two hundred odd employees" when you have a total of 500 employees but only 300 of them are normal.

Hyphens join words together to modify other words, and they really do change the meaning of a sentence. They turn two or more words into a single expression. For example:

  • A criminal-justice system is a system of criminal justice. However, a criminal justice system is a justice system that is criminal. It's probably not a good idea to write this phrase into an ad unless you're an activist.
  • English-language learners are people who are learning the English language. English language learners are English people who are learning any language.
  • On-site visits are visits to the site of an activity. On site visits are -- well, nothing really, just words that have been slapped together but make no sense.
I can already hear your cries of protest. You say that hyphens aren't needed, because only an idiot would be unable to figure out what a writer meant by "on site visit". I suppose you are also a fan of typos, because even idiots understand what the writer meant to say.

Punctuation is important, and hyphens are important. Sorry, wanna-be writers.


Karan said...

I'm with you, Megan!

Torq said...

Be very careful. You may bring forth a veritable flood of excessive hyphen-users. You see I needed to add those hyphens there to show how masterful my engrish skills are. Don't want anyone thinking that drug users are somehow using grammar to get high now!

You have a point, but I fear abuse of the treasured hyphen would be far, far worse!

Torq said...

Stupid plural... Ummm... someone else broke into my house to make that post. It couldn't have been me as I always revise my posts before posting them...

Ben Holsapple said...

Shouldn't that be "excessive-hyphen users"?