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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

A Sportswriter Cries “Foul!”

by Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist

The hyphens are coming, and beware—they’re taking over. Commas, not so much. Commas have gone extinct. These are a couple of my pet peeves when it comes to grammatical violations in print. More on that later. In the meantime:

Somehow, a guy named Al showed up in all right, and it’s now “alright.” Nope. Wrong. And I have no time for “anytime.” It has to be two words: any time. Once you’ve written “any hour” or “any minute,” how can you go with “anytime”?

How about the second time in as many days? As many days as what? Should be in two days.

Going forward. It’s not bad grammar, it just has no place. What, as opposed to going backward? Eliminate going forward from every usage, in print or conversation, and it won’t be missed.

Then there’s the sentence that takes forever to reach the point—and by the time you get there, you’re no longer interested:

“The occasion of the Wallace brothers burning down the Gazebo with the very last match at their disposal and then pretending it never happened at the after-party at Bob’s house takes a special place in history.” Taken literally, what takes a special place in history?

As for hyphens, here are a few really dreadful ones I’ve seen in responsible newspapers lately:

The tension-level was high
He’s the odd-man-out
Dare-we-say he was confused?
That’s the elephant-in-the-room
The best record of all-time

Commas? Somehow, they have been deemed unnecessary. More actual examples:

Thanks for trying guys (maybe you should go back to gals)
Don’t go Tiger (go ballistic, or go east)
Say It Ain’t So Spain (it ain’t so hot, either)
“Meaning what ace?” (actually saw this in a David Milch script)
“This isn’t a funeral you know.” (True, but I think my friend Pete recognizes it.)

Then there’s the misplaced apostrophe, so common on the street:

“Fresh sandwich’s”
“She fly’s with her own wing’s”

Long ago, in the press box of the old Comiskey Park in Chicago, there was a sign on the women’s bathroom that said “Ladie’s.” It was a charming sign, in the form of a baseball—seams and all—but that apostrophe drove me nuts. Year after year, covering the Oakland A’s, I wasn’t able to walk past that thing without seething.

Then in 1990 the park closed down. Visitors knew they’d be making their last visit to the storied old yard. On my last night there, about a month before the season ended, I dawdled and stalled until I was the last person in the press box. And I was prepared. I whipped out a bottle of Wite-Out and made that apostrophe vanish.

Postcript: Wayne Hagin, a broadcaster at the time (can’t remember what team), knew about my mission. One night near the very end of the season, he yanked that sign off the bathroom wall and stashed it in his briefcase.

It now resides in the guest room of my house. Ladies welcome.


Bruce Jenkins’s new book, Shop Around: Growing Up With Motown in a Sinatra Household, is available in bookstores and on Jenkins is the son of Gordon Jenkins, who worked with all the greats of the pre-Elvis era (including Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, and Sinatra). The Miracles’ “Shop Around,” the first big hit of the Motown empire, turned Bruce’s life around at the age of 12. Shop Around is a book for soul-music lovers and anyone whose parents were on entirely different musical wavelengths.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, at 1:30 pm

Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.

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Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, at 9:38 am

Punctuation or Chaos

She said I saved the company

No one knows for sure what the above sentence means. It consists of six everyday words, and the first five are monosyllables, yet this simple declarative sentence has at least three quite different
meanings—maybe more, because with no period on the end, the reader can’t even be sure the sentence is complete. As it stands, we don’t know whether “she” or “I” saved the company. We don’t even know who was talking. Look:

She said I saved the company.
• She said, “I saved the company.”
• “She,” said I, “saved the company.”

Without punctuation marks, a sentence is thrown into chaos. So please spend a few minutes assessing your punctuation proficiency by taking the quiz below. The answers directly follow the test.

* NOTE: This quiz addresses punctuation rules and conventions of American English.

Punctuation Quiz

A) The ship arrives at 8 p.m.. Be on time.
B) The ship arrives at 8 p.m. Be on time.
C) A and B are both correct.

A) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye.’ ”
B) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’.”
C) The teacher said, “This is an example of ‘an eye for an eye’ ”.

A) Lamar is a bright, happy, child.
B) Lamar is a bright happy child.
C) Lamar is a bright, happy child.

A) If I may be perfectly frank I think it’s a bad plan.
B) If I may be perfectly frank, I think, it’s a bad plan.
C) If I may be perfectly frank I think, it’s a bad plan.
D) If I may be perfectly frank, I think it’s a bad plan.

A) Ask me Wednesday. We will know more then.
B) Ask me Wednesday; we will know more then.
C) A and B are both correct.

A) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer; Mexico City.
B) We have come up with a travel choice for this summer: Mexico City.
C) A and B are both correct.

A) The four siblings can read each other’s minds.
B) The four siblings can read each others’ minds.
C) The four siblings can read each others’s minds.
D) The four siblings can read each others minds.

A) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
B) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baine’s idea of a good time is fishing.
C) All the student’s favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’ idea of a good time is fishing.
D) All the students’ favorite teacher is Mrs. Baines, but Mrs. Baines’s idea of a good time is fishing.

A) Our daughter is two-years-old now.
B) Our daughter is two years old now.
C) Our daughter is two-years old now.
D) Our daughter is two years-old now.

A) After reviewing the up to date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
B) After reviewing the up to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
C) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally-friendly practices.
D) After reviewing the up-to-date documents, she pushed for environmentally friendly practices.

A) These are just words on paper- you can choose to disagree with them.
B) These are just words on paper – you can choose to disagree with them.
C) These are just words on paper—you can choose to disagree with them.
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

A) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?).
B) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that?)
C) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that.)
D) I hope you enjoyed yourself (why do I worry about that).



1. B) See Periods, Rule 2

2. A) See Quotation Marks, Rule 7

3. C) See Commas, Rule 2

4. D) See Commas, Rule 4a

5. C) See Semicolons, Rule 1a

6. B) See Colons, Rule 1a

7. A) See “Each Other vs. One Another” (Newsletter of Sept. 29, 2015, tenth paragraph)

8. D) See Apostrophes, Rules 1c and 2a

9. B) See Hyphens, Rule 4

10. D) See Hyphens, Rules 1 and 3

11. C) See Hyphens, intro (first paragraph)

12. A) See Parentheses, Rule 2b

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Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, at 9:43 am

The Elusive En Dash

When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen:
prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed: a three-day-old newspaper,
a dyed-in-the-wool snob.

But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist,
a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.

Most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and
post-World War II novel. We would respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action:
New York–based artist, Charles Dickens–inspired author, post–World War II novel.

Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful WriterWilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.


Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.

1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)

2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)

3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)

4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)

5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)

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Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at 3:40 pm