Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hifalutin' Hyphenation


Cheerio, duckies! Orange is everywhere, and pumpkin spice has our flavor options in a death grip. It is decidedly fall.

It is also decidedly easy to fall prey to sneaky little style slipups. Luckily, we have our faithful CMOS to finesse any faltering. Today’s case in point: the hyphen. That teeny little line can bewilder the best of writers, but the Manual is quite forgiving with regards to hyphen usage.

In section 7.77 of the Sixteenth Edition, the CMOS acknowledges the mental gymnastics required to decipher compound mechanics. It also offers an easy out: by consulting the dictionary. Webster’s provides a substantial, though not exhaustive, list of hyphenated compounds. Section 5.91 of the CMOS goes further, providing an especially helpful rule of thumb. Look for substantial alterations in meaning when deciding to apply hyphens. Is it a small shoe shop, or a small-shoe shop? Hopefully, the size of your feet does not range into square footage, and you’ll easily see the difference.

With common usage, many open or hyphenated compounds close over time. While both the CMOS and Webster’s dictionary may encourage hyphenated spellings, it is becoming more and more acceptable to use closed compounds where “pronunciation and readability are not at stake.”

Essentially, it all boils down to clarity. If your well-dressed businessman character requires a tie and a hyphen to be obvious to your readers, by all means, include both. If your description makes it all clear without the clutter, you may skip the hyphen if you are so inclined.


Just be prepared for Spellcheck and Webster’s to argue the point.

There are naturally many more considerations and rules to take into account, but it's time for all of us to be about our day. Have a lovely week, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!
Photo courtesy of Darrick Bartholomew 
Tired of fishing walnuts out of the ornamental pond, the Style Maven has threatened the local squirrels with a steady diet of boring bread crusts instead of their usual cake tops. Whether this tactic works remains to be seen; if it does, you can read about it at KOFO's Procraftinator page.


12 comments :

  1. Should I point it out, I wonder. But I feel compelled.
    What, for you, is the CMOS (I assume Chicago Manual of Style judging by the picture) is for us, in the UK, the OMOS (Oxford, of course) and your Webster's is substituted by the Oxford or, depending on taste, Collins.
    I've no doubt there will be many more dispute between the pages of these august tomes to add to general opinion. After all, as has been noted by the more erudite than me, we are nations divided by a common tongue.
    Still, a useful piece of advice. Thank you.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, by all means, sharing points of view should be considered vital to the craft! After all, no one voice is the authority on everything. Unless it's my mother. Sigh ...

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  2. Hyphens are tricky. When in doubt, I always look it up. They are not a replacement for em-dashes. Em-dashes should be used judiciously, and by that I mean rarely.

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  3. One of my editors was a hyphen-happy lady, and she put them in all sorts of places I didn't think they were needed. So I deleted them, and the manuscript still passed with the final copy editor.

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  4. Always enjoy a good S and M session ... Style Maven, of course ... what were YOU thinking?

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    Replies
    1. Probably the same thing that YOU were thinking. ;)

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  5. My editor has closed many words I've hyphenated. So now I check them all. Some can go either way. Tricky, this English language, even the one you speak, Stuart.

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    Replies
    1. English? You think I speak English, Polly? I'll 'ave yah know I speak Yorkshire an' am raight proud on it, an' all.
      But you're absolutely right. English is a tricky devil: it's because it borrows from multiple languages and claims the results as its own. Sneaky, eh?

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    2. I stand corrected, Stuart. Blimey, ya got me. (Now you'll tell me Blimey isn't Yorkshire, I bet.)

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    3. Stuart, please come to my house and read the phone book to me. Read anything. I'll feed you cheesecake.

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    4. Now there's an offer! Read the phone book: the plot, so thick yet linear; the characters, so numerous and diverse; the sheer weight of words, overwhelming!
      And there's cheesecake into the bargain? How could I refuse?

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  6. My biggest problem with hyphens comes with compound adjectives and nouns. Words hyphenated at the end of a sentence are more or less cut and dried because they are divided at a syllable break.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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