Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hyphen hell

Couple of nice lessons from America's Newspapers today on the difference between editing and looking busy.

Hyphenation, as we all know, is the sort of thing not to be taken too-seriously less the hyphenator go mad. And the easiest way to avoid the madness is to find a Rule and stick to it -- say, "hyphenate every preposed compound modifier on pain of gooey death." Such devotion tends to lead to some punctuation events that shouldn't occur in real life, like "high-school student" or "ice-cream cone," but you have to admit it saves precious neurotransmitters for those all-important feature heds.

Trouble arises when writers and editors forget that the rule applies to compound modifiers, not to every pair of adjectives, adverbs or whatnot that might pile up. The hyphen in "little-used car" indicates a real compound, in which the meaning arises from the combination: A car that has seen little use. And, conveniently, the hyphen distinguishes such a compound from "little used car," meaning a pre-owned Fiat. Those are "cumulative" adjectives, in which meaning is piled on sequentially. If it helps, you can also think of the head noun as a compound itself: A "used car" is a kind of car, and "little" is a size of used car.

Got it? Sticking a hyphen into a compound-that-isn't can either create ambiguity, which we don't like, or clarity, which is even worse if it ends up indicating the wrong thing. Today's examples:

We’re not big-party people. We had an intimate wedding in 1972 and have celebrated anniversaries and birthdays with family since.

Let's go out on a limb and suggest that the hyphen in "big-party people" was inserted into this syndicated column by the features desk. It removes some ambiguity, but I'm willing to bet it removes it in the wrong direction. As published, the sentence says the writers aren't fond of big parties. I think they meant something else: "party people" as the noun, and "big" (as "little" does in "little used car") suggesting that they don't go in much for parties. End result? Somebody looks busy, somebody appears to be following the alleged stylebook, and the result is bad meaning.

Here's another, from the very next page:
Raised in Dayton, Bobby Osborne is half of the pioneering bluegrass band the Osborne Brothers.

Sonny and Bobby added drums, pedal-steel guitar and amplification to the genre.

OK. Many, if not most, scholars would quibble with the assertion that the Osbornes "added drums" to bluegrass. But our target here is the hyphen. "Pedal steel" is not a compound modifier (we seem to have been over this before). "Pedal steel" isn't a kind of guitar; "pedal" is a kind of steel guitar (it's played with a steel, and it uses pedals and knee levers to change pitch).

It's always easier to do what the stylebook says, or appears to say, than to sketch out what the grammar is doing. And in most cases, you end up spending more time in arguing than you saved by not putting in the otiose hyphen. But every time an editor makes a real grammar argument and wins, an angel gets free beer for a week at any Fuller's tied house.

(Busy week here, by the way, what with revisions to be made and the new HEADSUP-L command center and missile silos to inspect. Apologies if your Telex or carrier pigeon hasn't been returned. We're working on it.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe the "big-party" hyphen indicated exactly what the writer meant: his family enjoys parties, but only those of small to moderate size (hence the "intimate" wedding and family-only holidays - describing a small, select group of attendees).

10:35 AM, July 11, 2007  

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