Friday, February 12, 2010

Plain English: The Clash of the Hyphens

The hottest battle in the current grammar wars might be billed as The Clash of the Hyphens. Some of the rules on when to hyphenate are fuzzy and inconsistent. In many instances, there are exceptions to the rule. Most of us have to use the dictionary to figure out how to spell eyewitness, eye shadow, or eye-opener.

The warring factions in the Hyphen War are not the grammarians and English teachers versus the publishers. The grammar authorities and, oddly enough texters, are deleting hyphens. They are battling advertising copywriters, comic book authors, and public relations gurus who are adding hyphens. Right now the use of the hyphen is in flux. Here is how both sides stack up.

Spellcheck on your computer may still tell you to spell avantgarde as avant-garde and grassroots as grass-roots. My Spellcheck caught those words, but did not tell me to hyphenate downsize, breakdown, and cleanup. The trend is to eliminate the hyphen used with prefixes and suffixes. Examples: noncompliance, copayment, semiconscious. Eventually, grammarians run into a hyphen rule that has to do with vowels. Weird spelling may result when you delete the hyphen in words like ultra-ambitious or semi-invalid. The double vowel seems to be okay in words like preemployment and coordinate, but doesn’t work in de-emphasize or co-owner. For some reason we still see hyphens in all words that begin with self (self-assured, self-respect, self-addressed) and ex (ex-wife, ex-con), but no hyphen when a word begins with non (nonmember, nonsupport, nonentity). The trend in texting is to shorten words and sentences and omit punctuation. Online banking has contributed to the demise of the most familiar hyphen rule used when we used to write out checks for “seventy-five” dollars.

On the opposing side are marketing and sales experts who maintain that hyphenated words are eye-catching. Joining words with hyphens creates a visual effect that keeps people reading. In a recent article, “Words with Hyphens that Work Well in Copy and Why” by Michael Collins published in Ezine Articles, the author recommends using the following words as eye-catchers: award-winning, easy-to-use, fool-proof, make-or-break, must-have, no-questions-asked, no-risk, no-money-down, plug-and-play, quick-and-easy, ready-to-go, world-class, one-stop, one-to-one, and high-powered. According to Collins, these hyphenated words “hit all the right buttons” in the reader’s mind. “They interest, intrigue, excite, reassure, guarantee, and convince” customers before they even know what the product is. Collins describes hyphens as “verbal starbursts, golden starbursts that go off like explosions of emotion as the reader reads on.”

Grammarians have a different point of view. As far as they’re concerned, the hyphen is on its way out. There are so many exceptions to the rules on when to use a hyphen that three years ago The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary decided to delete hyphens in 16,000 words. The new SOED lists leapfrog, bumblebee, crybaby, pigeonhole, lowlife, and upmarket. The dictionary retains hyphens for court-martial and other compound verbs, but lists many words separately, including fig leaf, fire drill, ice cream, pot belly, test tube, and water bed. The disappearance of the hyphen has been underway for nearly 200 years. If you browse through Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, you will see goodbye spelled good-by and today spelled to-day. The original title of Moby Dick was Moby-Dick. Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf still maintains a hyphen.

Who will win the Clash of the Hyphens? My money is on the print publishers who have a track record when it comes to deleting punctuation. To save money on ink, publishers eliminated the semicolon about forty years ago. Today you rarely see a semicolon in a newspaper, magazine, or book. Shovel-ready, two-timer, and start-up are on their last legs. Maybe they will be written as one word or two, but the hyphen will be long gone.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,


Jason said...

Good riddance. And don't the Germans take this one step further and just run words together?

When "Truck-shaped balloon" becomes Truckshapedballoon we will be civilized.

Steve Platt said...

This is an interesting and informative summary but the idea that printers did away with the semi-colon to 'save on ink' simply isn't credible. How many semi-colons would it take to save a spoonful of the black stuff?