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 blog. 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. See my post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens.) 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 whether (and how) the autocue had hyphenated it. In some styles, a single en dash is preferred to multiple hyphenation, especially when the compound is a proper noun: post–Lisbon Referendum mess.

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.