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Hyphens: We Miss Them When They’re Gone

Most people ignore hyphens. Those who don’t ignore them often misuse them.

“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,” wrote the language scholar Wilson Follett.

The writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein was more sympathetic: “The world of the hyphen is anarchic. Such rules as there are tend to break down under the pressure of exceptions.”

No wonder the hyphen has been called “the pest of the punctuation family.”

Still, if we did not need hyphens, they’d be long gone. One of their chief functions is to serve as connectors in compound adjectives, which consist of two or more words. We see hyphens used this way all the time: an author who is well known is a well-known author; an athlete who is out of shape is an out-of-shape athlete.

To illustrate the indispensability of the humble hyphen in compound adjectives, we offer these examples from print and online media:

Hard to find plants at garden center  The article that follows this headline has nothing but praise for a startup whose specialty is exotic vegetation, but two hyphens are needed in the opening phrase: hard-to-find plants. Otherwise, the headline is deceptively negative: who wants to go to a nursery where it’s hard to find any plants?

The drop in fee is $15  It appears there was a fifteen-dollar drop in the price of admission to this event. On the contrary, the price of a ticket at the door—that is, the drop-in fee—stayed firm at fifteen dollars. The writer subverted the sentence’s meaning by leaving out the hyphen.

He drank a single malt scotch  If you don’t know scotch whisky from Scotch Tape you might suppose that the man limited himself to one drink of “malt scotch.” But no, he was drinking a single-malt scotch, and he consumed quite a few that evening.

No parking rules enacted  As it stands, this headline says that no legislation was passed regarding public parking. But the article contradicts the headline: the city council issued an extensive list of no-parking regulations, effective immediately.

A bomb survivor tells his story  What a profound difference this missing hyphen makes. Anyone who survives a bomb has a harrowing story to tell, but this piece was about a man who survived the atomic bomb, also known as the A-bomb, that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The anguish of surviving a bomb blast cannot be minimized, but even that pales in comparison with enduring the hellscape wrought by the most devastating weapon ever unleashed upon humankind.

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and Punctuation

by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern

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Following up from the week before last, here are some more contranyms (also known as autoantonyms):

cut (get into a line)
cut (get out of a class)

dust (remove dust)
dust (apply dust: fingerprints)

fast (moving rapidly)
fast (fixed in position)

left (remaining)
left (having gone)

68 One-Minute English Usage Videos

English In A Snap: 68 One-Minute English Usage Videos FREE 

Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.

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