Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Some A-Do About No-Thing

If I had known that the mainstream media would take such a sudden interest in language stories, I'd have thrown together a new book or something. When we're not hearing about the quotation-marks blog or National Punctuation Day, we're hearing about the supposedly shocking decision by the editors of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to do away with a whole bunch o' hyphens.

Bill Hyphen Walsh must be aghast at this travesty, right? Well, no. Bill Hyphen Walsh issues blustery pronouncements about American English. These are British hyphens, hyphens as unnecessary and uninteresting as they are un-American, hyphens that link adjectives to the nouns they modify. The Brits get all worried that you might think a dressing gown is a gown that is dressing, and so they write dressing-gown to make it clear that it's a gown of the dressing variety. We'd never write dressing-gown, and not only because we have the superior term bathrobe.

Americans do use such hyphens, but only as a last resort, and often in terms most unsavory. There are giant-killers who are killers of giants as opposed to killers who are giants, and there are child-rapists who are rapists of children as opposed to rapists who are children. But we're sensible enough to know without the aid of a hyphen that a mountain climber isn't a climber that's a mountain.

Look at the examples given in the stories about the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary's supposed apostasy and you'll find not a single example of a hyphen that's been used in American English in the past half-century. Just as we used ice-berg a billion years ago, the SOED until last week used bumble-bee and chick-pea and cry-baby and fig-leaf and hobby-horse and ice-cream and leap-frog and log-jam and low-life and pigeon-hole and pin-money (huh?) and pot-belly and test-tube and touch-line (huh?) and water-bed and water-borne. Check the current Webster's New World, the official dictionary of virtually all American newspapers, or pretty much any recent dictionary of American English. You won't find any of those hyphens.

I'm not quite sure why the Limeys wrote ice-cream until a few days ago, but, of course, we Yanks eat ice cream. Unless, unless, unless -- and here's where we get into the kind of hyphen that inspires arguments and punctuational nicknames -- we're talking compound modifiers. The hyphens that Americans get testy about in one direction or the other are the ones that link ice and cream when they're teaming up to become a single modifier -- a compound modifier, a unit modifier, a call-it-what-you-will multiple-word modifier or adjective. I'd never dream of writing ice-cream as a noun all by itself, but I'd sure as hell be lining up with the three other Americans who would insist on a hyphen in ice-cream cone. Some -- well, most -- would insist that there's no chance anybody would read the hyphenless ice cream cone as meaning a cream cone of ice rather than a cone of ice cream, and they'd be right. And so what? Structure is structure.

Some -- well, most -- would say the same thing about orange juice salesman or even high school student, and some -- well, most -- had better not come crying to me when they're suddenly confronted by a juice salesman who's orange or, unlikely as it may seem, a school student who's high. In fact, the Shorter OED's editor, Angus Stevenson, makes it clear that he's not striking compound-modifier hyphens. Reuters says:
But hyphens have not lost their place altogether. The Shorter OED editor commended their first-rate service rendered to English in the form of compound adjectives, much like the one in the middle of this sentence.

"There are places where a hyphen is necessary," Stevenson said.
"Because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity."
And then there's e-mail vs. email, but that's a unique case.

But enough about a non-story. Or is it a nonstory? Now, there's a more interesting hyphen argument.


Unknown said...

I'm not sure any Brits were using "ice-cream" until a few days ago. I thought the reason for these changes is that people had long since stopped hyphenating those compounds.

Bill said...

But of course.

Tammy said...

I don't know. You really endorse "ice-cream cone," simply for the sake of structure? I can report in all sincerity that Lapsing into a Comma opened my eyes to the sublime world of hyphen-as-compound-joiner use, but I'm not with you on this one. Is our primary charge as copy editors to elicit the clearest writing at all times or to enforce consistency as a matter of principle?

If, as we agree, no one would ever misread "ice cream cone," then that hyphen does not aid clarity—and I would argue that it hampers the prose, holding up the eye in a place where punctuation is generally not expected.

Really, "ice cream cone," unlike "orange juice salesman," carries a single unit of meaning in modern English. Isn't being able to recognize that and to make exceptions, rather than doggedly laying on rote punctuation, part of the subtlety and grace of good editing?

Bill said...

A good question well put, Tammy. I would submit that it's better not to leave the reader in suspense even for a millisecond when there's an accepted device that can prevent it -- when I'm reading a modifier, I want to know it's a modifier and not have to backtrack once I see the real noun. I would further submit that horrible distraction that the anti-hyphen people bring up in arguments like this doesn't happen in real life. I've never heard anyone complain that the Wall Street Journal, which religiously hyphenates compound modifiers, is hard to read because of that policy. I'd also prefer to avoid the long committee meetings in which we'd have to draw up the list of modifiers that constitute single units of meaning. If "orange juice salesman" isn't like ice cream cone, is "orange juice glass"? "Orange vested hunter"? (Orange you glad I didn't say "banana" again?)

Unknown said...

Hey, I'm a hyphen fan. I generally tend to write no-where instead of nowhere. I'm generally a stickler for compound hyphens in my professional correspondence (membership associations are use compound-modifier-heavy language.)

I still though that the examples above were incredibly superfluous hyphenation. Wow.

Dan said...

Nice post.

I'm reminded of another great Onion headline: Copy Editor's Revenge Takes Form Of Unhyphenated Word

kostia said...

I was taught that there are three kinds of compound words: hyphenated, closed-up (I don't recall the proper term), and open. Ice cream (and roller skate, roller coaster, and others I could probably come up with were it not 5 in the morning) are open compounds, and they're treated as single words. There's no need to hyphenate them, even when they're modifiers.

That said, I do take your point about having to backtrack to ascertain meaning, and no rule is worthwhile unless it can be broken occasionally to ease and speed understanding for the reader.

Except the rule about "you must use lots of parenthetical asides when you're really sleepy," demonstrated above.

Unknown said...

"I've never heard anyone complain that the Wall Street Journal, which religiously hyphenates compound modifiers, is hard to read because of that policy."

But have you heard anyone complain about underhyphenation? Personally, I'm unconvinced that someone is going to be momentarily confused by "ice cream cone" or "orange juice salesman." In my mind, the idea of a cream cone that's made of ice is so strange and illogical that it would never cross my mind unless I decided to read it that way.

That said, I don't think "ice-cream cone" is a terrible distraction or a hideous eyesore. I just remain unconvinced that putting the hyphen in there is worth the effort.

Bill said...

>>But have you heard anyone
>>complain about underhyphenation?

Of course, but like most sensible people I try to avoid listening to myself.

"Ice cream cone" is among the worst examples I could have chosen; it would be pretty high on the list of exceptions if I were the exceptions-making type on this issue.

Consider instead something like "death penalty advocates" or "capital punishment opponents," where the omission of the hyphen stands out much more as clumsy and careless.

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

Or "noncooperative game theorist".

JD (The Engine Room) said...

My slightly battered Concise OED (10th edition, revised) gives 'ice cream' as two words, unhyphenated – so obviously this has been on the cards for a while for the dictionary folks.

In British English at least, the trend as I see it has been for two words to become hyphenated and then in a third stage stage become one word. For example, 'motor cycle' became 'motor-cycle' and finally 'motorcycle'. I think the OED's move is interesting because it appears a backward step: 'icecream' seems more progressive than 'ice cream'.

Incidentally, 'dressing gown' (unhyphenated) is superior to 'bathrobe' because you can talk about 'receiving a dressing down in your dressing gown'. Strangely satisfying.

Unknown said...

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but ...

Thank you, thank you! I often feel quite alone in my love of hyphens.

Early in my editing career, I remember wondering why the "real estate" in "real estate professional" was not hyphenated. I didn't mess around -- I called AP guru Norm Goldstein and asked why AP didn't hyphenate it. He said because it was an obvious term that was not likely to be misunderstood.

He's lucky. I guess they don't have a bunch of "imaginary estate professionals" running around New York. In my neck of the woods, I wonder sometimes ...

Bill said...

Hi, Christy! Sometimes I think of hyphen-phobia in terms of lost opportunities. For instance, in a world full of properly used and understood hyphens, a Realtor (TM) who listed a particularly sprawling and elegant residential parcel could write, "I've long been a real-estate agent, but now I'm a real estate agent!"

(Yeah, some of us have modest dreams.)