Monday, May 19, 2008

An Anti-Child Law

Yahoo appears to be describing a pornography law as "anti-child." What the headline writer meant, of course, was "anti-child-pornography law." Be against hyphens if you like (I say "child-pornography law," you say "child pornography law"; potayto, potahto), but once you deign to use one, you have to agree to the terms of service. Hyphens join, and you need two hyphens to join three groups of letters. You can get away with health-care systems analyst as opposed to health-care-systems analyst (yes, it's an analyst of health-care systems, but it's also a systems analyst in the field of health care), but the law in question is against child pornography, not against children.

I'm not a big fan of the en dash, by the way, but in more bookish prose you could theoretically get away with anti–child pornography law.


Moriel said...

I especially have that problem when AP Style seems to dictate not using a hyphen when I'd be inclined to use one. Like in your example, actually--I'm pretty sure the stylebook requires "health care" in all circumstances, even those in which any other word combination would be hyphenated for clarity. What do you do in situations like that?

Mark Dodge Medlin said...

It's not so much Yahoo as it is The Associated Press, whose reporters and editors seem unable to connect more than two words with hyphens.

Thus in addition to that pornography law that is anti-child, AP gives us rights groups that are anti-gay and immigrant groups that are anti-illegal.

BookMama said...

Thanks for posting this - it's one of my pet peeves. I tend to lean toward hypen usage, and I agree with you that if a writer is going to hypenate, he needs to hypenate correctly and completely.

noneemac said...

[The editor emits a big SIGH, then ROLLS his eyes skyward in an exaggerated arc.]

One of my clients -- a pharmaceutical company that, among other things, researches cures for cancer -- hyphenates "small-cell lung cancer."

So far, so good. However, they insist on hyphenating its counterpart as "non-small cell lung cancer."

This drives me bonkers. Who dropped the initial hyphen, and why? Why must they insist on writing the equivalent of "medium or large cell-lung cancer"?

If we can't trust Big Pharma with their hyphens, how can we trust them with our colons?

noneemac said...

Oh, and a message for kyra. At Big Pharma, we simply close up "healthcare."

But we're not out of the weeds yet: anyone want to tackle "assisted living facility"?

H. Philip Aster said...

Plainly, anti-child-pornography law is correct, and the meaning of this phrase so constructed could not (or should not) be misconstrued by anyone.

Arguably, most people would not misconstrue anti-child pornography law given the context, but there are myriad "missing hyphen" examples that would require the reader to take a few seconds to puzzle out of the meaning of the expression without the appropriate hyphenation.

I once had to research and write an article on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. In all the extensive literature surrounding the subject - which included thousands of pages of judicial opinions - there never appeared more than one hyphen in any manifestation of partial-birth abortion, even when those three words together were used as a compound modifier (as in partial-birth-abortion legislation). It was disheartening.

Bill said...


That's one of those unfortunate AP entries that are so blunt as to be open to all sorts of interpretations. It just says health care. To some that could mean that "Felix the Cat" should be changed to "health care." To me, it means only that AP doesn't use "healthcare" as one word. And even if it specified health care (n., adj.>, we'd only be back to my "child pornography law" example. Even if that's your style, you still cannot defend "anti-child pornography law." Likewise, it would be "health care field" but "health-care-related field" in that interpretation of AP style -- basic principles of punctuation and common sense always trump style.

Bill said...


At least "partial-birth" can be said to describe the ban in some sense. "Anti-child," on the other hand, is "anti-child."

Bill said...

Assisted-living facility is the way to go (the living is what's being assisted), but those in the "if it's not confusing, don't punctuate" school would be correct to say that assisted living facility isn't confusing.

Tahoe Editor said...

I recently lost a battle to hyphenate "stem-cell research." Our rule is if it's in the dictionary, don't hyphenate. So, "stem cell research"; "natural gas pipelines."

But I still insist on embryonic-stem-cell research.

Happily, UPI uses "healthcare" sted "health care."

Roli said...

The question nobody is asking (with regard to the specific headline cited) is: Why do you need "anti-" in the first place? "Supreme Court upholds child pornography law" would surely never be understood to mean that the justices supported a law to promote child pornography.

That said, my advice would be: if you shun the hyphen for compound modifiers ("gay rights movement"), learn to love the en-dash for such prefixes as anti-, pro-, pre-, and post- ("anti[en-dash]gay rights organization," "post[en-dash]Cold War Europe," etc.).

Tahoe Editor said...

I'll second that. What's wrong with "child pornography law"?

TootsNYC said...

What's wrong w/ "child pornography law"?

It doesn't fill out the hole.

I understand the en-dash use Bill referenced. but I never use it. I think it's the equivalent of jargon--we're the only ones who understand it.

I might use the en dash WITH the hyphen
(pretend that's an en dash, not an em; I don't know how to make one: anti–-child-pornography)
, but that just looks junky, so I've sort of given up, and I just put hyphens all the way through, unless I think it's REALLY hard (and then I try to recast)

Unknown said...

Bill, just read this in the New Yorker. It throws capital letters into the mix. Your thoughts?

The Huffington Post is a site on which people "post their anti-Bush Administration sentiments".

Bill said...

You would never put hyphens within a proper noun. A White House source, not a White-House source. An anti-Council Bluffs resident of Omaha, not an anti-Council-Bluffs resident of Omaha.

I suppose there are cases where ambiguity or even hilarity would result, but ... our language ain't perfect.

Mr R said...

Well, if English is your second language, this hed is a problem

Roli said...

TootsNYC, your point about the en-dash being like jargon is interesting, but there is one big difference: readers usually notice jargon (as being something they don't understand), whereas they rarely notice punctuation unless it causes a problem in reading. Using the en-dash in a phrase like "anti[en-dash]gay rights organization" virtually prevents the possibility of this phrase being read as meaning "an organization in favor of homophobic rights," because the mind registers that "anti[en-dash]gay" is not the same as "anti[hyphen]gay," even if the reader has no idea what an en-dash is. Also, you SHOULD NOT use the en-dash with a hyphenated compound: "anti[hyphen]gay[hyphen]rights organization" is correct; "anti-" is clearly attaching itself to the whole hyphenated modifier "gay-rights," so their is no need for the en-dash. If you wrote "anti[en-dash]gay[hyphen]rights organization," you would be creating a new compound modifier that meant "opposed to gay-rights organizations"!