A Surplus of Hyphens

rogersgeorge on April 28th, 2017

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of three-word phrases unnecessarily hyphenated. Here’s an example:

Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have peace-of-mind knowing the contents on your computer are protected.

Sorry, but those hyphens aren’t necessary. Here are a few more: inch-by-inch, time-of-day, up-to-date, over-and-over. These would all make fine compound adjectives, but don’t hyphenate them unless they are adjectives! For those hyphens to be correct, the writer of that sentence would need something like:

Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have a peace-of-mind situation knowing the contents on your computer are protected.

Those other examples might be inch-by-inch examination, time-of-day readout, up-to-date message, over-and-over excuses. An exercise: when you see one of these, supply your own noun the adjective phrase to modify. But when they’re by themselves, don’t hyphenate them.

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A Typographic Subtlety

rogersgeorge on August 5th, 2016

We have five horizontal lines in English writing. I’m not going to write about the strikeout and the underscore today. The other three are the hyphen, the N-dash, and the M-dash. I’ll skip the hyphen, too, except to say that you shouldn’t use it in place of the two dashes. Unless you’re using a typewriter, where you don’t have a choice.

The N-dash shows a range such as the opening and closing times of a store. 5:00–9:00 for example. An N-dash is the width of a capital N.

The M-dash (width of a capital M) indicates a break of some kind. An interruption, change of thought, or to emphasize a parenthetical idea.

The rules permit you to use an N-dash with spaces instead of an M-dash. But don’t.

Never use spaces around an M-dash—and that leads to my quoted passage. Until today I had never seen anyone put spaces with an M-dash.

In a discovery that raises fundamental questions about human behavior, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found that the immune system directly affects — and even controls — our social behavior, such as our desire to interact with others.

This is from an article in a Kurzweil newsletter. Those are M-dashes, and they shouldn’t have spaces around them. They do correctly emphasize the parenthetical remark, though.

Did I forget any rules about dashes? Tell me in the comments.

Compound Adjectives

rogersgeorge on June 17th, 2016

Sometimes you have a word that together with another word modifies a noun immediately following it. You separate these words with a hyphen (actually you join them with that hyphen). So you can have an after-hours party, for example. You can do this with more than two words, too, such as an after-the-fact pronouncement. I don’t recommend that you get carried away, but it is possible to do, as Brooke McEldowney demonstrates by describing a remarkable quandary in his excellent comic, 9 Chickweed Lane:

9 Chickweed Lane

Maybe this falls into the category of hyperbole.

Three things about these compound adjectives:

  1. If you leave off the hyphen it means something different. In my first example above, without the hyphen you end up being after something called an hours party, whatever that is.
  2. Really common compounds often end up becoming single words. We used to have pre-nuptial agreements, but now it’s a prenuptial agreement. Same for pickup truck. Even “today” used to be “to-day.”
  3. Don’t hyphenate if it’s not an adjective. You can do something after the fact. And you can party after hours!

PS. I just started to re-read a book I had read as a teen-ager, The Egg and I by Betty McDonald. It was published in 1945, and made quite a mark at the time. They even made a movie out of it. The movie featured Ma and Pa Kettle, predecessors to the Beverly Hillbillies. But I digress. The first chapter of the book has this sentence; it serves as an example of the gentle humor typical of the book:

This I’ll-go-where-you-go-do-what-you-do-be-what-you-are-and-I’ll-be-happy philosophy worked out splendidly for Mother, for she followed my mining engineer father all over the United States and led a fascinating life; but not so well for me, because although I did what she told me and let Bob choose the work in which he felt he would be happiest and then plunged wholeheartedly in with him, I wound up on the Pacific Coast in the most untamed corner of the United States, with a ten-gallon keg of good whiskey, some very dirty Indians, and hundreds and hundreds of most uninteresting chickens.


Gotta watch those hyphens

rogersgeorge on October 15th, 2011

Here’s a headline from The Daily Galaxy, a science feed from the Discovery Channel.

Galaxy Devouring Black Holes -1st Evidence Found

by Casey Kazan Daily Galaxy Editorial Staff
I enjoy reading this feed for its science content. Occasionally it gives me some material about good writing, too, mainly examples of what not to do. They should hire a better proofreader, harrumpf. Of course, maybe I’m just really picky. Here’s the picture that went with the article:

The alternate text for the picture is "Supermassive_Black_Hole_001." Presumably it's inside the bright spot at the center of this galaxy.

On to the writing lesson of the day. How do you interpret this headline? Is it about a galaxy that’s devouring black holes? Or is it about black holes that devour galaxies? Headlines must be as terse as possible, but a hyphen doesn’t take up much space, and here it makes a difference, especially to people who don’t know anything about cosmology. The way the headline is constructed you have a galaxy devouring some black holes. In a headline you can leave out things like helping verbs, so you’d naturally supply “is” and get “is devouring.” “Okay,” says the layman, what’s wrong with that? Sounds pretty exciting.” The headline is perfectly grammatical that way, too. Trouble is, that’s not what the writer wants to say.
You can interpret the headline another way, but first put a hyphen between the first two words:

Galaxy-Devouring Black Holes -1st Evidence Found

The hyphen makes the two words into a compound adjective describing the black holes. Now we have the black holes doing the devouring. That’s a completely different meaning! If you don’t have enough cosmology under your belt to know already, go read the article. You should have no trouble figuring out which interpretation is intended.

The headline has two other errors. One is editorial, and I suspect Mr. Kazan didn’t write the headline, because the headline contains an unscientific exaggeration. Read the article and you will see the exaggeration. The other error involves the typography. I leave identifying both errors as an exercise for the reader. If you can identify both, pat yourself on the back. If you give up, make a comment and I’ll tell all.

Those little horizontal lines matter

rogersgeorge on November 18th, 2009

We commonly use three little horizontal lines in English: the hyphen, the N-dash, and the M-dash. Some people say we use hyphens and dashes, but I prefer the increased precision of saying two dashes. They’re named for how wide they are, by the way; the width of a capital N or a capital M.

Everybody knows what a hyphen is. You use it for compounds (see the two preceding posts), and to divide a word at the end of a line if it doesn’t fit. And a few other minor places, such as in telephone and social security numbers. You get a hyphen by pressing the key just to the left of the equals sign on your keyboard. You get an identical symbol by pressing the minus key on the numeric keypad. Technically the minus sign and hyphen are different—the  code sent by the keyboard to the computer is different for the two keys, and some fancy-dancy typesetting systems (Tex and BookMaster come to mind) distinguish between them. That’s probably more than you need to be told about hyphens.

N-dash. An N-dash is a little longer than a hyphen. Use it when you describe a range of values, such as when a store is open: 7–9. To get an N-dash: hold the Alt key down while you type 0150 on the numeric keypad, then release the Alt key. Use an N-dash, and you class up your document, and your readers won’t even know what hit them.

M-dash. An M-dash is a little longer than an N-dash. Use an M-dash to show a break in thought. In the olden days you got the equivalent of an M-dash by typing two hyphens in a row, but you can get a real M-dash with the Alt-key trick, only you type 0151 instead of 0150. Use of M-dashes is a handy indicator of sophistication in typography, and they make your writing easier to understand.

Here’s a hyphen, an N-dash, and an M-dash: -, –, —. Easy to tell the difference, eh? (I’m feeling Canadian right now.)

All this discussion leads to a gaffe in a recent headline in an article published by Ziff-Davis, of all people, that beautifully demonstrates the importance of using the correct punctuation mark. Here’s the headline:

Google Voice-Free Calling Has Arrived

Now, doesn’t that look like some way to make a call without using your voice? Read the article, however, and you discover that Google Voice is a way to make a call for free—a much different meaning, and one that certainly makes more sense. They should have written “Google Voice—Free Calling Has Arrived.”

If you want people to understand you, remember that a hyphen ties things together, an M-dash separates them.

Care to quibble or add to these short lists of what each mark does? Comment. Want to learn more about writing clearly? Get the free document on the right.