Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

March 23, 2015

‘Yeats’s handwriting resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram,’ writes the late Daniel Albright in his preamble to the marvellous Everyman Library edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems, which he edited.

Albright gives a similarly forthright account of the poet’s spelling and punctuation, excerpted below. While acknowledging his debt to Richard Finneran, who oversaw a different collection of Yeats’s poems, Albright parts company from him in two ways:

First, he is more respectful of Yeats’s punctuation than I. He supposes […] that Yeats’s punctuation was rhetorical rather than grammatical, an imaginative attempt to notate breath-pauses, stresses, and so forth; and that the bizarre punctuation in some of Yeats’s later poems is due to the influence of experimental modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Laura Riding. I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

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Accent prejudice and multiple hyphens

January 15, 2015

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’.

Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.

Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

October 10, 2014

Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.

I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.

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Punctuation support group

July 31, 2013

Support”, by Tom Humberstone:

Tom Humberstone - New Statesman cartoon = Punctuation support group

[click to enlarge]

I love Exclamation Mark’s happy bafflement, and the last two frames tie the strip together very nicely (though for comic timing and pathos I’d have put the ellipsis between them rather than before them).

I don’t think I have anything to say about the Jay Z hyphen non-story – but if you do, I’m all ears.

You can see more of the artist’s work at the New Statesman and on Humberstone’s own website.

I didn’t cycle up the Liffey on a bicycle

May 22, 2013

Edna O’Brien’s book Girl With Green Eyes has a romantic line involving bicycles in Dublin:

Ah, the bloom of you, I love your North-Circular-Road-Bicycle-Riding-Cheeks.

It’s a sweet declaration ending in an impressive hyphenated string (though if I were editing it I would separate cheeks from the compound and reduce the capitalisation: North-Circular-Road-bicycle-riding cheeks).

In a modest correspondence between books decades apart, Declan Hughes’s Irish detective novel The Dying Breed has another elaborate compound phrase constructed with the help of bicycle imagery:

I made a face at that, my d’you-think-I-cycled-up-the-Liffey-on-a-bicycle face.

When I tweeted that sentence I was treated to a few variations on the theme: Belfast’s D’you think I floated down the Lagan in a bubble? (@charlieconnelly), and Glasgow’s D’ye think ah came up the Clyde on a water biscuit/banana boat? (@ozalba; @Yanbustone).

There are many versions of this idiom, often beginning Do you think…, You must think…, or I didn’t… More (or less) familiar lines include: Do you think I came down in the last shower?, You must think I was born yesterday, and I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday.

I love the water biscuit one, but for some reason I relate most strongly to cycling on the Liffey – so long as I steer clear of Gogarty’s swans.

Hyphens in phrasal adjectives

August 9, 2008

Phrasal adjectives (or adjectival compounds, or compound modifiers) are phrases that serve as adjectives, e.g. six-hour delay, one-way street, tried-and-tested solutions, up-to-date catalogue, come-as-you-are invitation, and grammar-intensive weblog. Phrasal adjectives often need hyphens, not just for grammar but also for readability. Hyphens tighten and demarcate the phrases, which is especially helpful when multiple compounds are used:

fast-growing free-range poultry
two-and-a-half-hour on-campus tour

In these examples, each group of words acts as a single idea (fast-growing poultry, not fast and growing poultry). By clarifying each group with one or more hyphens, these strings of modifiers need no further disentangling. Note that hyphens are not used if the phrase follows the object. Rewriting earlier examples:

Our catalogue is up to date
These solutions are tried and tested (clichéd but correct)

If your text has too many hyphenated phrasal adjectives, a simple rearrangement along those lines can often clear things up.

Writers should be careful not to overuse hyphens. H. W. Fowler described them as “regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may”. Regrettably, they are more commonly done without in unreasoned ways. When long strings of interconnected modifiers are written without hyphens, they put unnecessary work on the reader. Neglecting even a single essential hyphen can lead a reader astray, as shown by the following example in Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words:

When Government financed projects in the development areas have been grouped…

Hyphen omissions can also be amusing: imagine a school of twenty-odd teachers, and beside it a school of twenty odd teachers. A well-placed hyphen reduces the potential for such ambiguity.

An example from the Oxford Manual of Style is a little used car. Interpreting this phrase fussily, a little used car is a small second-hand car, but most readers would infer that the car hasn’t been used much. This is a reasonable assumption, since little-used is quite a common phrasal adjective, and small is used more often than little to describe car size. But the punctuation and meaning don’t match up, so you should be aware that in some contexts a reader might object.

Because the rules and guidelines are not commonly understood, hyphens in phrasal adjectives tend to be ignored or haphazardly applied. Strictly speaking, only the last of the following formulations is correct:

non profit making organization
non-profit making organization
non profit-making organization
non-profit-making organization

(As are non-profit organisation and not-for-profit organisation.) Of course, there are exceptions. Hyphens are omitted when the phrasal adjective begins with an adverb ending in -ly:

professionally typed letter
environmentally friendly products

Here, the -ly adverbs necessarily modify the adjectives that follow them, so a connecting hyphen is redundant and, to a sensitive eye, unsightly. Since this is the English language, there are also exceptions to the exceptions. Hyphens are reinstated if the -ly adverb is part of a longer compound:

formally-agreed-upon format
not-so-environmentally-friendly products

Hyphens don’t enter the picture if the phrasal adjective consists of capitalised words or foreign phrases, unless the phrases are already hyphenated, in prefix form, or part of a longer compound:

National Gallery exhibition
Lough Derg scenery
Austro-Hungarian Empire
ad hoc committee
cul-de-sac-based housing estates
post-Lisbon-Referendum mess

I heard the last phrase on RTE News on 21 June 2008, and idly wondered (as you do) whether the autocue had hyphenated it.

A handy device is the suspended hyphen. Here, a hyphen is “hung” on the end — or, less frequently, the beginning — of part of a phrasal adjective, where there is an omitted element in a common series:

I get on well with my brothers- and sisters-in-law
Please direct sales- and service-related queries to…
A street of three- and four-storey buildings

Wilson Follett wrote: “Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted.” The trouble is, it depends on who’s reading and judging, or even noticing. Some authorities suggest hyphenating phrasal adjectives as context dictates, taking each instance as it comes and avoiding ambiguity wherever possible. Others advocate a general rule to preclude ambiguity altogether, but this can lead to excessive hyphen use. Much depends on your own style, audience and subject matter.