Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Man editing tiger

Q. I'm confused. In one case, you say you are inclined not to use a hyphen for "copy editing symbols." Then a few entries later, you say to include a hyphen for the compound modifier "copy-editing experience." In both cases, "copy-editing" is a compound modifier. So what is the rule? – from Tallahassee, Fla. on Mon, Aug 05, 2013
A. The first is a noun phrase, no hyphen. The second is a compound modifier with a hyphen.

How many correct answers our friends at the AP could have provided:
  • Got us! Five hundred points to Rymratdor, or whatever. We owe you a beer, dude
  • This is a news agency, not a centuries-old seat of religious learning. You want a different rule, write your own rule
  • Yeah, good point. Whatever you do to the first one, do that to the second one too
  • Do we contradict ourselves? Very well then
  • OK, why not try it as one word?
Instead, we end up with a "rule" that's meaningless, mostly because it tries to make a technical distinction under which the two terms it distinguishes are, um, indistinguishable.

True, "copy editing" is a noun phrase: Copy editing is fun! So is "copy editing symbols"; it can be an object (a list of copy editing symbols) or a subject (Copy editing symbols drive journalism students nuts), but it's still a noun phrase. So is "copy-editing experience." So, for that matter, is "the copy-editing experience entailed by this year's take on your annual Thanksgiving column," and when you combine it with the VP "cost me half a millimeter of right molar, thanks," you have a sentence.

When it comes before a noun, like "symbols" or "experience," "copy editing" is also a compound modifier. Several such compounds are usually hyphenated: noun-adjective (wine-dark sea) and noun-participle (man-eating tiger), for two. Style guides from Fowler through the AP remind us that hyphens aren't there for decoration but for meaning; they're how we tell deep blue water from deep-blue water.

If you want to read "copy editing" as a noun phrase rather than a noun-participle combination, it's as much a noun phrase in one example as the next. It's equally a compound modifier in both cases. There's no consistency in hyphens, true,* but if you can't have a little consistency in how you describe your grammar, the reader might conclude that all that copy-editing stuff is just smoke and mirrors anyway. And thus is another hill lost in the War on Editing.

* Why the OED hyphenates "ice-cream cornet" but not "ice cream cone" is one for the nearest sphinx. (To this day, though, there are shops that insist on hyphenating "ice-cream cone.")

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2:59 AM, August 10, 2013  
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Blogger vp said...

Here's a bad headline:

Lawless Sinai Shows Risks Rising in Fractured Egypt. Took me a few attempts to parse it.

9:44 AM, August 11, 2013  

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