Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How About It, Hyphen Haters?


I have a question for those of you who scoff at "real-estate agent" and "orange-juice factory" because, after all, there's no ambiguity -- nobody would think "real estate agent" means actual estate agent, and nobody would think an orange juice factory is a juice factory painted orange.

Well, then, where's the ambiguity in "Law Abiding Citizen" or even "40 Year Old Virgin"? The meanings are perfectly clear without the hyphens. Leave them out, then?

You might say the hyphenation of ages is a universally accepted convention, and you'd be right. But what makes "law-abiding citizen" obviously correct and, say, "law-enforcement officer" pedantic and excessive?

13 comments:

bensrib said...

It's just one more instance of the laziness of writers today. Adding a hyphen is simply too much work. I fought with the writers at the magazine I work for over Web site vs. website. They won, and I'm still bitter about it.

Emily said...

i'm no hyphen hater, but i'm also no hyphen fanatic. but i think we each have our own personal "hyphen barometer" that tells us when a hyphen would feel good and when it wouldn't. and some people get touchy when their barometers don't agree.

hyphens are a constant niggle of annoyance on a copy desk, since our main goal is just to be consistent. we had to settle on a "real estate" (no hyphen) position when that was hot, and we've had to decide on "health care" (yes hyphen) now that it's buzzing. there's really no good argument for why we went with a hyphen on one and not another - it just happened.

though a "missing" hyphen might feel annoying, i think context is sufficient in 99% of cases to clear up meaning. i think in many cases, the hyphen is the first step to a compound word, and our urge to hyphenate might be coming from that primordial itch to glob words and word pieces together. i say - hyphenate if you feel like it and don't if you don't, and get over it if someone else disagrees!

Blork said...

Or you can get around the problems by renting, drinking beer, being a criminal, and getting it on as a teenager!

I love easy-to-fix problems. Oh wait... D'oh!

Tammy said...

Re your example, it seems to me that the difference is that "law enforcement" is essentially a permanent compound, whereas "law abiding" is not. I don't think "it's in the dictionary" is the right criterion for a permanent compound, though, which I suppose is the source of the contention. For my money, "real estate" and "orange juice" fall on the permanent end of things, too.

Archie Valparaiso said...

Almost worse than no hyphens is not enough hyphens, rife in the British press: "white-collar crime report", "24-year old man", "no-holds barred debate" and on and miserably on.

Lisa McLendon said...

>>But what makes "law-abiding citizen" obviously correct and, say, "law-enforcement officer" pedantic and excessive?

Parts of speech. Two different parts of speech joined as a modifier need a hyphen (law = noun + abiding = verb form), whereas two the same do not (law = noun + enforcement = noun). Was it you, Bill, who originally put this into my head in the first place? It's a simple rule that works about 99% of the time. If you like clarity. :)

Mike Cirelli said...

These kinds of questions have been plaguing me for years.

But whenever I drive past Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, I scoff in grammatical superiority.

Luise in Cambridge said...

This account just "lost" a lengthy reply I made. Can't redo it. This system is hard to navigate -- always has been. Rats.

Bill said...

I've never been a fan of the parts-of-speech-based approach -- it sounds logical going in, but the results seem arbitrary. With both "law-abiding" and "law-enforcement," it seems to me, you have somebody doing something to something else, and that seems to cry out for a hyphen.

The permanent-compound approach ("law enforcement" isn't in Webster's New World, by the way) is flawed in at least a couple of big ways. "Oil painting" is in the dictionary, but "watercolor painting" isn't, so you'd have "oil painting classes and watercolor-painting classes"? And some of those compounds are arguably onewordable -- if rollercoaster seems like at least a possibly valid choice, I think it has to be "a roller-coaster ride," not "a roller [dramatic pause] coaster ride."

Tahoe Editor said...

I've always been Hyphen Happy, but early on I got schooled for "natural-gas company", and the general rule we follow is, if it's in the dictionary, hold your guns.

The dictionary rule is a good start, isn't it? Seems to me saying "it just doesn't work" is letting the perfect get in the way of the good. You can call it “flawed” or you can say it provides an answer a whole lot of the time.

["Oil painting" is in the dictionary, but "watercolor painting" isn't, so you'd have "oil painting classes and watercolor-painting classes"?]

Sure -- why not?

I'd go with "watercolor classes", but if it's the name of a business, I'd do it like the business or product -- "Watercolor Painting Classes"; "Old Fashioned Hamburgers"; "Law Abiding Citizen".

As a movie title, it deserves to be unadulterated. "Million-Dollar Baby", anyone? Yuck.

Happily, UPI style is solid "healthcare."

Etiquette Bitch said...

when 2 words are used to modify the 3rd word, one hyphenates the first two to indicate just that.

Leslie Monthan said...

My personal preference is to use hyphens in all compound modifiers, but it's not a hill I'm willing to die on. If my client hates hyphens, I'll set my "hyphen barometer" (nice term, Emily) accordingly, as long as clarity is preserved.

lucyk said...

The biggest underabusers of hyphens are architects, who see nothing wrong with the sentence 'well known two storey double fronted Gothic Revival shop house', which is crying out for at least 4 hyphens.