Accent prejudice and multiple hyphens

Time to recap my recent posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Anti-multiple-hyphen tendencies considers the strangely common aversion to ‘hyphenating up’ such compounds as self-driving car fantasists and anti-water protest groups:

The potential for ambiguity varies. The capitals in Paris Principles-compliant mechanism mean the phrase is unlikely to mislead, but in anti-social justice websites the familiarity of anti-social compared to social justice could make readers hesitate. Hyphenating the full compound solves this. . . .

[Washington Post copy editor Bill] Walsh writes that ‘what you must not do is arbitrarily decide to disconnect the unit by using only the most obvious hyphen and ditching the rest. Hyphenation is often an all-or-nothing proposition.’ I tend to agree. Hyphens misused can misdirect. But even when their presence or omission is trivial and non-life-threatening, getting it right (or as right as possible; there are grey areas) matters as a courtesy to readers. It gives them confidence in the writer-editor-publisher team.

The post has further discussion of the problem along with opinions from other editors.


Accent prejudice in the mainstream was prompted by two items: an article by Dr Katie Edwards in the UK Telegraph about the appalling extent of accentism in the academic world; and a Channel 4 quiz show on which a participant had his Scottish accent mocked.

[A]s we grow up we get used to hearing other accents, some like our own, some not, and we see nothing to gain by making fun of them. Quite the contrary: phonetic diversity can be a source of cordial fun and interest regardless of any background in linguistics or dialectology. . . .

Criticising someone’s speech, whether it’s the sound of their vowels or their use of ‘improper’ regionalisms, is often a socially sanctioned way of expressing distaste for their socio-economic status, educational history, or area of origin. It says nothing about the person with the accent except bare facts or probabilities about their background. But it says a lot about the person making the criticism, none of it favourable.

You can read the rest for more on accent prejudice in different domains, or browse older articles in my archive at Macmillan.


Lane Greene at the Economist follows up on what he calls ‘the last acceptable prejudice’.

7 Responses to Accent prejudice and multiple hyphens

  1. astraya says:

    Re accents: For me, the big issue here is: to what extent is it the speaker or writer’s responsibility to help the listener or reader understand the message in the most efficient manner, or to what extent is it the listener or reader’s responsibility to understand the message no matter how the speaker or writer presents it? In the interests of cooperative communication, I really can’t see that answer should be “all the speaker or writer’s responsibility” or “all the listener or reader’s responsibility”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, I’d agree that the responsibility is distributed between the parties in a conversation. Most of us have probably spoken with people whose accents we find occasionally difficult to analyse, or vice versa. It can be awkward, but less so if neither person feels that the other is to blame for the difficulties.

  2. MC says:

    There was also a really horrible bit of accent shaming on The Voice last Saturday by Tom Jones. It’s at 46:37 here
    Tom Jones asked the singer (who was from Birmingham) why he chose that song and he replied ‘I just liked it’.
    Jones then mimicked him in an exaggerated accent ‘you loiked it?’ and pulled a face while everyone laughed heartily. Vile.

    • Stan Carey says:

      MC: That sounds horrible. Birmingham accents have long been stigmatised, but you’d hope we would have grown out of that nasty habit by now.

      • astraya says:

        When I was in Birmingham, the bus driver didn’t understand *me*. I asked if the bus went to ‘Sir Harry’s Avenue’. When he didn’t understand me twice I pointed at the map and he said, ‘Oooo, Suh Urry’s Uvenoo!’

  3. Katdogsoz says:

    Here’s an example: Mr Chester said he had wanted to spend the day talking about Australian of the Year, anti-family violence advocate Rosie Batty.

    Ms Batty is honoured for her work against violence in families, not violence against families. Hyphen fail?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Katdogsoz – that’s a great example. This is exactly the problem. The weird reluctance to make a multiple-hyphen compound leads to a phrase that implies the woman is anti-family and an advocate of violence.

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