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Hyphens: We Miss Them When They’re Gone

Most people ignore hyphens. Those who don’t ignore them often misuse them.

“Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted,” wrote the language scholar Wilson Follett.

The writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein was more sympathetic: “The world of the hyphen is anarchic. Such rules as there are tend to break down under the pressure of exceptions.”

No wonder the hyphen has been called “the pest of the punctuation family.”

Still, if we did not need hyphens, they’d be long gone. One of their chief functions is to serve as connectors in compound adjectives, which consist of two or more words. We see hyphens used this way all the time: an author who is well known is a well-known author; an athlete who is out of shape is an out-of-shape athlete.

To illustrate the indispensability of the humble hyphen in compound adjectives, we offer these examples from print and online media:

Hard to find plants at garden center  The article that follows this headline has nothing but praise for a startup whose specialty is exotic vegetation, but two hyphens are needed in the opening phrase: hard-to-find plants. Otherwise, the headline is deceptively negative: who wants to go to a nursery where it’s hard to find any plants?

The drop in fee is $15  It appears there was a fifteen-dollar drop in the price of admission to this event. On the contrary, the price of a ticket at the door—that is, the drop-in fee—stayed firm at fifteen dollars. The writer subverted the sentence’s meaning by leaving out the hyphen.

He drank a single malt scotch  If you don’t know scotch whisky from Scotch Tape you might suppose that the man limited himself to one drink of “malt scotch.” But no, he was drinking a single-malt scotch, and he consumed quite a few that evening.

No parking rules enacted  As it stands, this headline says that no legislation was passed regarding public parking. But the article contradicts the headline: the city council issued an extensive list of no-parking regulations, effective immediately.

A bomb survivor tells his story  What a profound difference this missing hyphen makes. Anyone who survives a bomb has a harrowing story to tell, but this piece was about a man who survived the atomic bomb, also known as the A-bomb, that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The anguish of surviving a bomb blast cannot be minimized, but even that pales in comparison with enduring the hellscape wrought by the most devastating weapon ever unleashed upon humankind.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016, at 2:33 pm


Small Dishes

• Here is the type of sentence that makes grammar sticklers crazy: one of the students forgot to bring their lunch. You probably know this old tune: laissez-faire scholars and editors say the sentence is just fine, whereas nitpickers demand a rewrite because one is singular and their is plural. Things took a turn in January, when the American Dialect Society, siding with the freethinkers, proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015, hoping to put to rest a rancorous, energy-draining dispute that has raged for decades.

We now expect to see a revival of themself, as in one of the students helped themself to my lunch. Many proponents of the singular they reject themself, although it has been around for centuries. But when they is singular, themself rather than themselves seems the logical choice. Surely anyone who champions the singular they should also embrace themself, recognizing that monumental decisions have unintended consequences.

May the best man win is an old catchphrase that boxing referees used to say to two fighters about to contend for the championship. It has also been applied to politics—the author Gore Vidal wrote a memorable 1960 Broadway play titled The Best Man, a sophisticated study of two political rivals vying for the presidency. The saying seems to violate a basic grammatical principle: A superlative adjective (best) should only be used to compare three or more entities. When comparing A to B, we say A is better than B; we do not say A is the best of the two. Therefore, shouldn’t the referee say, “May the better man win”? And shouldn’t the play be retitled The Better Man?

Context is all. To qualify for a shot at the boxing championship, both combatants have had to take on and beat top contenders in their weight class. So when the referee says “best man,” he is including and saluting all the valiant fighters who came up short. Similarly, in U.S. politics the race comes down to the nominees from the two major parties, but only after a ferocious, protracted process of elimination. Anyone who witnessed the 2016 presidential brawl, with its never-ending parade of challengers, will vouch for the legitimacy—grammatically speaking—of Vidal’s title.

Amazing and awesome are the two reigning go-to adjectives for those afflicted with acute vocabulary anemia. Now a third word has joined this select company: surreal. It is used to describe everything from a transformative experience to a chocolate cookie. Some random online examples: “It is, in many ways, a surreal conflict.” “Realtor: Irvington housing market is surreal.” “ ‘It’s a surreal moment I’ll never forget,’ Carlson said of putting on the Cardinals uniform.”

Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got? If you dig deep, you might come up with astounding, memorable, outlandish, peculiar, startling, unearthly … really, the possibilities are endless.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, at 1:07 pm


Media Watch

Here is another set of recent flubs and fumbles from usually dependable journalists.

• “Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated.”

How did this one get by the editors? One of those two adjectives has to go.

• “He is accused of fleeing to London in March while owing more than $1 billion dollars to Indian banks.”

The dollar sign means “dollars,” so “$1 billion dollars” is as redundant as “simple and uncomplicated.”

• “The vessels have the capacity to carry about 2½ times the number of containers than held by ships now using the canal.

Why would anyone put than in that sentence?

• “The outpouring of anger and concern show that California wants vital and vigilant coastal protections.”

The subject is the singular noun “outpouring,” so the verb should be shows.

• “To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance … A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and many dictionaries accept only protester. Other dictionaries list protestor as an alternative spelling. But no authority alive recommends spelling the word both ways in the same paragraph.

• “It is an important fact ignored—or maybe unknown—to the candidate.”

The writer wanted to say that the “important fact” was either ignored by the candidate or unknown to the candidate. Here’s how to make it work with the dashes: It is an important fact ignored by—or maybe unknown to—the candidate.

• “The outcome is a major win for public employee unions, who would be weakened if members didn’t pay for representation.”

The word after “unions” should be which, not who. Despite being made up of people, a union is a thing. Writers should limit their use of who to humans.

• “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld away from Hollywood.”

The dangler is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century. Did you spot it? To sticklers and other careful readers, this sentence is sheer nonsense: it states with a straight face that stage fright was born in Brooklyn in 1922. We could write  Stage fright steered Mr. Bauersfeld, who was born in Brooklyn in 1922, away from Hollywood. But now the reader wonders what being born in Brooklyn in 1922 has to do with stage fright and avoiding Hollywood. Year and place of birth are irrelevant here. The writer was trying to cram too much into one sentence.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 7:46 am


The Only Truth

A few readers took issue with the title of last week’s article, “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” They said “Only” should go after “Matters,” not before. To which we reply: ugh. “Pronunciation Matters Only When You Speak” is too stilted, too mannered. Our title places only where you usually find it: before the verb.

There is no likelihood of misinterpreting “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” So the only possible objection to it is that it is against the rules. But what rules? Yes, some authorities insist on placing only next to the word or phrase it modifies (“When You Speak”). But other scholars deem this practice unnecessary if the meaning is clear.

There is no question that placing only before the verb can sometimes create confusion. The copy editor Claire Kehrwald Cook explains: “If you write We are only ordering metal desks because they are more durable than wooden ones, readers may think you’re ordering only one type of furniture when you mean you’re ordering it for only one reason. So take care with your onlys.” But Cook also says, “When only falls into its idiomatic place without causing ambiguity, let it stand.”

Writers have been placing only before the verb at least since Shakespeare (“Though to itself it only live and die”). “She Only Loves Me When I’m There” was a hit song in 2014, eighty years after “I Only Have Eyes for You” topped the charts in 1934. They Only Kill Their Masters is the title of a controversial movie from 1972. “It only hurts when I laugh” is the punch line to a classic old joke. If you ended that joke with “It hurts only when I laugh,” people would be amused all right, but not in the way you might hope.

Let’s see what the experts have said down through the years:

“Often, to be sure, clarity and idiom are better served by bringing only to a more forward position … Certainly it is always better to avoid an air of fussiness.” —Bill Bryson, 2003

“It is torturing the sentence and the listener to make a point of saying He died only yesterday.” —Wilson Follett, 1966

“Its natural position is before the verb … This word order is standard literary English.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.” —H.W. Fowler, 1926

We hope those quotations promote clearer understanding of a questionable “rule” that, if followed blindly, only encourages ham-fisted pedantry.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at 7:50 am


Pronoun Puzzlers

Today let’s look into a seldom-discussed subject that’s quite a mouthful: compound possessives with nouns and pronouns.

Have a look at this sentence: Cesar’s and Maribel’s houses are both lovely. Note the ’s at the end of each name. This tells us that Cesar and Maribel each own their own house.

But when two people share ownership, the ’s goes after the second name only. The sentence Cesar and Maribel’s houses are both lovely refers to houses co-owned by Cesar and Maribel.

However, if one—or both—of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, the possessive form is required for both: his and Maribel’s house, Cesar’s and my house, her and my house, your and their house.

As the above examples demonstrate, compound possessives with pronouns require possessive adjectives (my, your, her, our, their). Avoid possessive pronouns (mine, yours, hers, ourstheirs) in such constructions.

It should be mentioned that compound possessives are often clunky as well as confusing. For instance, a picture of her and Cesar’s house could refer to a photo of “her” in front of the house that Cesar owns or a photo of the house that she and Cesar co-own. Big difference. Such ambiguous sentences should probably just be rewritten.

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Last week we received this interesting note from a correspondent in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“The M.C. and I” is the title of a New York Times Book Review piece on Joel Grey’s new memoir. When I saw it I thought, Is that grammatically correct? I don’t even know how to think about figuring that out. Most titles aren’t sentences. I doubt The King and I would have gotten by all these years if it weren’t correct.

We’ve found that for every title like “The M.C. and I” and The King and I there are several like You, Me, and the Apocalypse (TV series), Me Talk Pretty One Day (book), Me and the Colonel (movie), “Me and Bobby McGee” (popular song), and on and on.

Here’s our theory: the subject pronoun I in a title like The King and I sends a subliminal message that what you are about to experience is high-minded and edifying. The King and I is a beloved Broadway musical about a prim Englishwoman who served in the court of the king of Siam in the 1860s. Consider the exotic subject matter and the sophisticated target audience and you can understand why The King and Me was not an option.

Now look at those other examples. The titles are meant to disarm us with humor or folksiness. They encourage a bond of easy intimacy between author and audience. There’s something comfortable about Me in a title and something more reserved and aloof about I.

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the best sentences. Our answers are below.

1.
A) Randy returned to he and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
B) Randy returned to his and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
C) Randy returned to him and his wife’s farm in Kansas.
D) Randy returned to himself and his wife’s farm in Kansas.

2.
A) Chris and my screenplay is almost finished.
B) Me and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.
C) Chris’s and my screenplay is almost finished
D) Myself and Chris’s screenplay is almost finished.

3.
A) They and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
B) Their and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
C) Them and their children’s house was getting a new porch.
D) Them and their children were getting a new porch for their house.
E) They and their children were getting a new porch for their house.

4.
A) Your and her dog is on my lawn.
B) Yours and her dog is on my lawn.
C) Hers and your dog is on my lawn.
D) Rewrite the sentence.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. B
2. C
3. E (B is correct, but awkward)
4. D (A is correct, but awkward)

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Posted on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at 2:17 pm