Friday, April 27, 2007

The Wrong Headline Got the Hyphen



Looking at today's Wall Street Journal, I spotted two front-page headlines that Paul R. Martin is likely to brand "heads below the rest" in the next Style & Substance.

Diet-Doctor
Atkins's Estate
In a Scandal


He's diet doctor Atkins. No hyphen. The phrase "diet doctor" is not an adjective or a modifier; it's simply a noun that helps define another noun. There's probably a fancy grammatical term for that, but I'd call it a label. Diet doctor Atkins, copy editor Walsh, baseball player Bonds. All labels. "Steroid abuser Bonds" would not get a hyphen (still a label), but "steroid-abusing Bonds" would -- there's a modifier.

Then, a couple of inches away, I see this:

All Harman Investors
Have Chance for a Stake
In KKR, Goldman Deal


A comma used that way in a headline means "and." I suppose in some sense you have a "KKR and Goldman deal," but that's just not how such a thing is supposed to be punctuated. It's a KKR-Goldman deal. Ali-Frazier fight, Tigers-Yankees game, Burton-Taylor marriage, KKR-Goldman deal.

Under the fairness doctrine, I'm obligated to point out that my paper also made a front-page hyphenation error today. From the article on Stephen Hawking's ride on the vomit comet:

Dressed in dark blue flight suits, Hawking and an entourage of caretakers boarded a Boeing 727 that roared out over the ocean and carved huge parabolic arcs in the sky, creating for passengers the "zero-gravity" effect of being in space.

Those blue flight suits sure were dark! That's not what the writer meant. He meant the color of the flight suits was dark blue. Dark-blue flight suits.

21 comments:

Brett said...

I'm not really up to speed on headline grammar, but it seems to me that it could be called an anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier. (See Geoff Pullum's classic LL post, 'Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence').

Luise in Cambridge said...

Re hyphens: Do you really think people are going to misread dark blue suit or light red tulip, etc.? Hyphens are dandy but so over- and misused (mental-health worker, stock-market quotation). I also wonder about "zero-gravity." Esp. since its in quotes, does it need the hyphen. As a (usually trade book) copy editor of long standing, I wonder about these issues a lot.

Bill said...

Interesting question, Luise. As a newspaper copy editor, I see a severe under-use of hyphens, as well as commas.

Bill said...

If you wonder about these issues, Luise, you came to the right place.

Of course nobody would misread "dark blue suit" or "mental health worker" or "trade book copy editor." But would anybody misread "supercede" or "strategem" or hundreds of other misspellings? How about "teh"? There's plenty of room for debate when it comes to hyphens and commas, but deliberately incorrect punctuation, like incorrect spelling, is just sloppy.

Lace said...

I received the following in the body of a press release today, publicising a conference:
"violent crime consultant"
I am gleefully adding a hyphen, while my editor is giggling about the above charging $45 for lessons on things I don't want to envision.

Bill said...

Lace's story is a good example of why ambiguity and confusion are useless as criteria for hyphenation. Nobody is REALLY going to think that's a crime consultant who's violent, right? Or a school student who's high, or a juice pitcher that's orange.

Paul said...

Another one for the hyphen surgery ward: the story that referred to O.J. Simpson as an "ex-American football player."

Word blaster said...

what about a low-scale measurement?

charlestace said...

Okay, that's fine about the hyphen and lack thereof. But what about the portion of the headline in which it's said shareholders are offered "a piece"? Now THAT'S an unusual deal!

charlestace said...

That's not a proposal. It's more like a proposition!

JD said...

I'm not sure of the difference in meaning between a 'dark blue flight suit' and a 'dark-blue flight suit'. How can a blue flight suit be dark without being, um, dark blue? In other words, one flight suit is dark and blue, the other is dark blue, and the difference there is negligible. But then, I've never understood the difference between 'dark pink' and red...

Bill said...

Yes, a dark-blue suit is also a dark blue suit, but, again, which idea was the writer trying to convey? I think it's that the suit is dark blue, not that the suit is both dark and blue.

JD said...

If the writer really wanted to emphasise the fact that the flight suit was dark and blue as opposed to dark blue (and why?), he should have used commas to separate the adjectives: "a dark, blue flight-suit".
http://engineroomblog.blogspot.com

Bill said...

True enough about the comma. The fact remains that it's a compound modifier. A lot of people choose to be lax about hyphenating compound modifiers; I don't. The writer's intent is to say that it's suit that is dark blue, not that it's a blue suit that is dark.

JD said...

Talking about compound modifiers. On my publication, we always hyphenate adjective+noun (military-history experts), never hyphenate regular adverb+adjective (nicely made bed), and only hyphenate adjective+adjective (dark blue suit) if necessary for clarity. We differ over whether a hyphen is necessary for clarity of meaning in my last example.
http://engineroomblog.blogspot.com

Bill said...

I agree that it's not necessary for clarity -- I'm saying I use the hyphen to be punctuationally correct (see my "mental health worker" note above).

Juniper said...

I'm pondering the hyphenation of compound adjectives that include two-word proper nouns.

Would you write "Nebula Award-winning author" or "Nebula-Award-winning author"?

Bill said...

Nebula Award-winning. The caps hold a unit together. (You don't write "White-House source.")

Juniper Paul said...

Bill, thanks, yes, this was also my conclusion although I'm having trouble justifying it to the author.

"The caps hold a unit together" does indeed seem to be the pattern, but what's the rationale for them doing so? Surely it's not the initial caps themselves that hold words together without further punctuation but rather the fact that it's a multi-word proper noun, yes? Does this binding power of proper nouns evidence itself elsewhere in the language?

The fact that we don't write "White House-source" isn't really a good counter example; it would have to be more like "White House-savvy lobbyists" in which part of the ordinarily hyphenated compound adjectival phrase was unhyphenated because it was a proper noun.

So far I've been unable to locate such examples, rules, and rationales in style guides (or for that matter anywhere on the internet). Suggestions are welcome.

Bill said...

Yes, my reference to the caps was shorthand for the proper-noun status, and it's not just visual -- "a bin Laden-orchestrated attack" would not be "a bin-Laden-orchestrated attack." The basic point doesn't need to be in usage manuals any more than "Don't change John to Jon if the guy spells it 'John'" needs to be in usage manuals. It's just common sense. It's a Bill Walsh book, not "a Bill-Walsh book." If you think "a Bill-Walsh-written book" is somehow different, fine. The point is the same. You don't insert hyphens within a single proper noun. It's a unit unto itself, not a "compound" that becomes a compound modifier when it's a modifier.

Alicia said...

saw this headline today, thought you'd appreciate it:

Toyota developing anti-drunk driving gadget