Stalking the Pesky Hyphen 

Rosie Right

As we have noted often, punctuation marks, especially commas, bring out the disputatious nature in writers and copy editors. Another small punctuation mark can lead to almost as heated a discussion. This is the hyphen.

Bill Walsh, a copy-desk chief at the Washington Post, tells us in his book "Lapsing into a Comma":

"Ah, the hyphen. When I was young and doctrinaire … this was my favored battlefield. Compound modifiers must be hyphenated, I insisted, and essentially I believe this. Still, an awful lot of people believe the hyphen is intrinsically intrusive. I often think those who hate hyphens don't understand hyphens, but a lot of people in this camp have rather impressive credentials."

The most troubling problems with hyphens come with compound adjectives, whether to write words with a hyphen or solid, and whether to sprinkle hyphens throughout your writing or save them for places where their absence would make for ambiguity. We are not helped by finding different rules in different style books.

As for whether to write a word like "business man" solid or with a hyphen, AP fortunately either tells us or directs us to look up the word in Webster's New World Dictionary. But what about using hyphens in compound adjectives before nouns?

Walsh writes: "[V]irtually every editor makes at least some exceptions for readily recognized compounds that often act as modifiers." As examples he cites "high school graduate" and "Clinton administration officials" (no hyphens). Some editors hyphenate "health care plan" while others don't.

We are left to limp along trying to decide whether the absence of a hyphen will create confusion. One of Walsh's examples is clearly in need of a hyphen. Who would want to see an "orange juice salesman"? Others we meet daily are not so clear.

To quote Walsh one final time: "The job of an editor is to make things as easy as possible on the reader, and the least an editor could do is stick in a little hyphen .…"

More than splendid?

A friend was bemused to hear an interview on National Public Radio in which one of the participants used the word splendiferous.

The word was greeted by the interviewer with bewilderment. Was there such a word?

The answer depends on whether you use what H.L. Mencken called "uncouth neologisms." These, he said, include shenanigan, shindig, to skeddadle, and others.

As a copy editor Rosie would probably question splendiferous if she found it in a serious article, but in conversation it seems a wonderful, colorfully descriptive term.

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825, ext. 322), letter (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, Va. 23230), or e-mail repps@styleweekly.com.


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