Monday, April 18, 2005

Can You Hear the Hyphens?

A couple of ads, one on television and one on radio, show why compound-modifier hyphenation is more than just an esoteric issue confined to the nerds of the written word.

There's the Geico ad on TV in which the dorky executive and the gecko go door to door to charm customers, including reading to their children. One line from the fake storybook says something about a "small car insurance bill." The written equivalent would be "small-car insurance bill" -- an insurance bill for a small car. Obviously, the actor was supposed to say "small car insurance bill," as in "small car-insurance bill," as in a small bill for car insurance.

Another ad, on a local radio station, for a product I can't remember, mentions "high energy efficiency." The meaning, of course, is not high-energy efficiency, as in efficiency that's particularly energetic, but rather "high energy efficiency," as in energy efficiency that is high. (No hyphen needed, though "high energy-efficiency" would be an acceptable style decision.)

The fact that "small car" and "high energy" are oft-heard word pairs makes these pronunciation mistakes especially annoying, though perhaps they contributed to the errors. My point is that compound-modifier hyphens, or the lack thereof, affect the way phrases are pronounced as well as the way they're read by those of us who can do so without moving our lips.


Andrew Phelps said...

Oh my God. You are my hero.

Kay Jay said...

Wasn't the Geico ad supposed to be a pun?

Unknown said...

At my paper (weekly lifestyle mag for the 20- and 30-somethings), we once did a style story slugged "bargainclubclothes." I asked if the story was about bargain club clothes (as in inexpensive clothes for hitting the clubs) or bargain-club clothes (as in discounted Tommy Hilfiger jeans from Costco).

It was supposed to be the former, but they liked the idea so much, we ended up writing both stories and running them side-by-side - with an explanation of the difference a hyphen can make.

JohnC63 said...


Your last paragraph begins thus: "The fact that ..."

Strunk and White are spinning, when they should be at eternal rest.

JohnC63 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill said...

And I should have begun with ... "Rhubarb"? "Bunnies"? (To begin such a sentence with a naked "That" is cruel to the reader, no matter what some authorities say.)