Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Tiny Acts of Elegance

The hyphenation or non-hyphenation of compound modifiers is a frequent topic among copy editors, and I discuss it as eagerly as anybody. What we sometimes lose sight of, though, is whether the compound modifier really needs to be a compound modifier.

I've jotted these phrases down over the past month or two: his global warming policy . . . the ocean science and fisheries professor . . . next month's whaling commission meeting . . . a northwestern Louisiana youth shelter . . . negligent homicide charges.

There's nothing particularly confusing in those constructions (though I would ask why we're calling the homicide charges negligent), but aren't they ugly? A hyphen would eliminate the inappropriate allegation of negligence, and I'd also hyphenate global-warming policy, but whaling-commission meeting, ocean-science-and-fisheries professor and especially northwestern-Louisiana youth shelter would look pretty weird even to a dedicated hyphenator like me.

But why not dedicate a few crumbs of paper and drops of ink to writing prose and not lines from a telegram? Why not his policy on global warming and the professor of ocean science and fisheries and next month's meeting of the whaling commission and a youth shelter in northwestern Louisiana? Keep the telegram method in your back pocket when a draconian trim is needed, but don't make it a first resort.

33 comments:

Nikolai Weibull said...

Why is that not "northwestern-Louisiana youth-shelter" instead of "northwestern-Louisiana youth shelter"? Is it simply because you can't really misinterpret the meaning of the second phrase?

tom said...

I have to admit I almost hyphenated "high school teacher" the other day, but I still think of hyphens as the nuclear option on ambiguity.

Bill said...

British English might use hyphens in things like "youth shelter" and "dressing gown"; in American English you see modifiers linked to nouns much less often. We use them to avoid ambiguity (giant-killer, child-rapist, Nazi-hunter) and sometimes in combinations that are on their way to one-word status (thrill-seeker).

E.K. Hornbeck said...

I always hyphenate "high-school teacher," just as I hyphenate "real-estate agent" and "limited-liability company." Certainly any potential ambiguity created by omitting the hyphen will almost instantly be resolved in the reader's mind from the context; however, the potential ambiguity will remain, likely causing the reader to (1) quickly read the phrase again to ensure the reader correctly understands the writer's intended meaning; and (2) smirk in light of the possible alternate construction of the phrase (e.g., "a high school teacher" as teacher who has been smokin' the reefer).

horatiosanzserif said...

Here's a quick rule of thumb to help rationalize some dehyphenation:

If Webster's New World -- the AP Stylebook's first reference of choice -- includes a listing for a potential compound modifier as a noun (real estate, high school, etc.), the hyphen isn't necessary when used in constructions such as "high school teacher," "real estate agent," etc.

Another potential solution is to reword a phrase that would include any compound modifier requiring more than two hyphens. After all, who wants to read a hyphenated-beyond-all-bounds-of-reality construction?

BTW: "Schoolteacher" is one word, as per Webster's. If said schoolteacher were high, this schoolteacher would be a "high schoolteacher." No confusion.

Bill said...

The idea of treating the nouns listed in Webster's New World as unhyphenated modifiers is intriguing, but take a quick look at just how many such terms are in the dictionary. We'd be stuck with abnormal psychology professors, absent without leave accusations and adding machine manufacturers, and that's just early in the A's.

Brian Pearson said...

As a fellow editor, I can certainly understand your hyphenventilating.

It says "small-business owner" in the stylebook, and yet this classic example continually shows up hyphen-free in news copy.

Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!!!

Also, I'm fiercely opposed to hyphenating Vice-President So Andso.

There, I said it.

Bill said...

Yes, there's no need for a hyphen in "vice president," except in something like "his vice-president pick."

horatiosanzserif said...

Regarding the dictionary: It depends if you run with the paperback or hardback version. And if you're writing about "adding machines." Anyway, point taken.

Question, though, from a sentence in today's Washington Post:

"The county's affordable housing program is partially funded by a portion of the real estate tax; in the coming fiscal year, it is expected to get about $20 million."

Would you hyphenate real estate as a modifier here or not?

Bill said...

I would hyphenate "real-estate tax" on my own time but not when editing a Post article.

Rich R said...

How splendid! A copy editor writes... I thought this breed of nitpickers was extinct. (It pretty much is, in the SF Bay region)

wudsteen said...

Jeebus! Readers aren't THAT stupid, so why should editors pepper perfectly good copy with so-called qualifers? There is no reason -- absolutely none -- to hyphenate "high school teacher" or "real estate tax," et al., when the noun in question is easily identifiable by the average person. Adding hyphens is usually done to edit for the sake of editing. Haven't we gotten over this yet???

LFelaco said...

I imagine in days gone by, someone could potentially have misread "real estate tax" as a "real (not artificial) estate tax." But since Bush renamed the estate tax the death tax, we're that much safer leaving real estate unhyphenated as a modifier ...

Bill said...

Ha. But seriously: The point is, the correct hyphenation of "real-estate tax" and the like isn't hurting anybody!

LFelaco said...

Maybe with the newer soy-based inks, that extra dab for the unnecessary hyphen isn't hurting the environment like it used to, but every hyphen I have to fill in while copy editing hastens the day when I end up with carpal tunnel syndrome...

E.K. Hornbeck said...

How about "discrete particle physicist" or "invisible fence salesman"? Again, the intended meaning will surely be derived from the context, but not before the reader does a double take.

We hyphenate to clarify language. Using the standard of only what would be necessary to make a word, phrase, or sentence intelligible to the "average reader" would doubtless sanction the elimination of most punctuation. Isn't it preferable to reduce, rather than increase, confusion?

Niko Dugan said...

"Readers aren't THAT stupid, so why should editors pepper perfectly good copy with so-called qualifers?"

We don't hyphenate on the assumption that readers are stupid; we do it because it makes the sentence easier to read and comprehend quickly.

"There is no reason -- absolutely none -- to hyphenate "high school teacher" or "real estate tax," et al., when the noun in question is easily identifiable by the average person."

Here lies the problem: What makes the sentence easier to read and comprehend quickly to us isn't necessarily the same as to the reader. The usage of "high school student" and "real estate tax" and "ice cream sandwich" have become so common without the hyphen that readers who see it with the correct punctuation are taken aback and must re-read to make sure it's not wrong, and sometimes still aren't convinced ("Why is there a hyphen there?") I'm willing to let those few examples slide (except for "real estate tax," though I'll grimace and bear it for "real estate agent") because in common usage, they have become more recongnizable without the hyphen. In effect, those battles have been lost. But I still won't give up on "e-mail."

LFelaco said...

By all means, hold the line on e-mail. I have no intention of giving that particular hyphen up, either. I also like to hyphenate "infectious disease" as a modifier, to make sure the right element stays infectious.

wudsteen said...

I agree with "e-mail," but I maintain that the overhyphenization of the language is becoming silly...

rfs1962 said...

Do you ever wonder why people use hardest-hit as an adjective? Even when it's grammatically correct, it's pretty senseless to say hardest-hit areas rather than areas hit hardest. I see some irony in the fact that it's one of the few hyphenated compound modifiers that is frequently used correctly.

Bill said...

I think you're on to something, but I wouldn't agree that "hardest-hit areas" is faulty. The problem, I think, is that people take that quite natural word order from the modifier and use it after a noun (a "predicate adjective," is it?) when "hit hardest" is much more natural. The following, to me, is natural, if tautological: The hardest-hit areas are hit hardest.

I mention this in "The Elephants of Style," along with the similar example of rental cars and car-rental companies, which people quite oddly call "rental-car companies."

(And yes, my descriptivist friends, I know full well that none of this even comes close to being a matter of right or wrong.)

aparker54 said...

Word order, then, matters not in emphasis?

Third Reading said...

Bill, a friend referred me to your site last week, and I immediately became hooked. I even went back several months to see what I've been missing all this time.

I couldn't find a place to contact you, so I figured I'd post here. It seems one of the phrases that bothers you most is "foreseeable future." You seem pretty adament about the stupidity of this phrase, but I think I have a new argument.

The phrase "foreseeable future" is by definition correct. Let's take an extreme example. You once posted, "...show me your diary from Sept. 10, 2001."

Well, let's assume I met with a group of investors or insurers on 9/10/01 and said. "I encourage you to partner with the World Trade Center. We won't be hit by terrorist-guided airplanes in the foreseeable future."

The next day, the buildings are hit by terrorist-guided airplanes. So you say, "See? There's no such thing as the foreseeable future." I say that for 14 hours or so, I was correct. Then, something unforeseen happened, thus ending my prediction of the foreseeable future.

To use a more likely scenario, say a governor announces he has managed to cut the state's budget by 5 percent. "With prudent government practices," he says, "citizens of this state will not endure a tax increase in the foreseeable future."

That may be a risky statement politically. But if one year from the announcement revenues come in well below projections, forcing a tax increase, the governor still technically would have been correct.

Because the second something unexpected happens (yes, lottery numbers are unexpected every week, but that has no bearing on the governor's prediction) the forseeable future becomes unforeseeable.

Sorry to beat this horse, but do you have any thoughts on that?

Le Petomane said...

Aparker54, of course word order doesn't matter -- for emphasis or any other reason -- to many copy editors. Rules are important. And it would be better for everyone if we had a rule to always rewrite such constructions so there's no debate about hyphens.

For example: The schemes laid best by mice and men gang aft a-gley.

Wasn't that easy? Isn't it a big improvement over the original?

And how was your trip? I assume you're back in your old stamping/stomping grounds.

Bill said...

If the duration of the foreseeable future changes depending on events, then "foreseeable future" is meaningless, which was precisely my point. Somebody talking on 9/10/2001 presumably meant more than 24 hours when referring to such a period.

Stephen Jones said...

if the duration of the foreseeable future changes depending on events, then "foreseeable future" is meaningless,

I'm certain, Bill, that if you vaporized in a plane crash your halo would still be shuddering hundreds of years hence at the use of the phrase.

The 'foreseeable future' is no more meaningless than "barring unforeseen occurences' or a dozen other phrases that mean extrapolating from current trends. You simply have a blind spot here, and apparently no number of people pointing it out is going to change it.

rfs1962 said...

I think I'm with Stephen here. I happened to see the phrase "foreseeable future" in the NYT over the weekend, which reminded me of this thread. If you take out "foreseeable," the meaning changes, so that won't work. Rewriting it will almost certainly bring about something longer and stupider. As Stephen says, there's a general understanding of what the phrase means. On the editing-problem scale of 1-10, "foreseeable future" is maybe a 2.

Bill said...

Near future. So long, so stupid.

rfs1962 said...

Near future is not long or stupid, but it doesn't mean the same thing. My foreseeable future includes seven years of college costs. My near future involves lunch.

Le Petomane said...

I think "foreseeable future" has to be treated as idiom. The future obviously cannot be foreseen, and someone not familiar with the term could not deduce its meaning from the literal definitions of the words.

Objecting to this long-established phrase is one step away from insisting that "rush hour" must be changed to "rush period" because it's more than an hour. And, hard as it is to believe, there are copy editors out there who do change "rush hour" to "rush period." Objecting to "foreseeable future" encourages them in their madness.

aparker54 said...

Are you insane, Le Petomane? If copy editors don't spend hours (or long periods of time, or whatever) changing readable English into prose with which no imaginable reader could quibble -- except on the grounds that it's not readable -- how will the copy editors justify their existence and high pay? Layout, no doubt.

"Future plans" never bothered me much, I'm ashamed to say.

rfs1962 said...

High pay?

MuPu said...

High pay?

Hmmm. I can't make heads or tails of it.

海北 (haibei or hai-pei) means "north of the sea" in Chinese, but that doesn't make any sense either.