Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Hyphen Falls By The Wayside

The hyphen is starting to lose its place as a featured punctuation mark, as nearly 16,000 words lost their hyphens in the newest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Some formerly hyphenated words that have been split in two include ice cream, pot belly and test tube, while others that have been unified into compound words are bumblebee, chickpea, and crybaby.

Always a point of contention among word nerds and grammar geeks like myself, there’s a fine line between knowing when to present words as two separate words, a hyphenated word, or a compound word, and often times if you poll a group of language dorks, you might get several different answers, with each person claiming to be correct.

I’m one of those dorks. When I get it in my head that I’m right about something pertaining to language or grammar or punctuation or spelling, it’s very hard to sway my opinion. And in a rare head-swelling and ego-boosting moment, I must state here that I’m right more often than I’m wrong.

In the examples above, I would never have written “ice cream” with a hyphen, so I was surprised to read that older versions of the Shorter OED had it hyphenated. The current edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary spells it as two words.

One of the bibles that journalists and writers refer to is the Associated Press Stylebook, and in it the word “baby-sit” is listed as a hyphenated word. Now, I may not be as smart as all the researchers who compiled the entries in that book, but I will never...never...write that word any way other than “babysit.” And nobody will tell me any differently. Merriam-Webster spells it as a compound word, so that’s good enough for me.

Another instance where the Stylebook and Webster differ is on the word “backyard.” The Stylebook differentiates that “back yard” as a noun is two words (“The boys played wiffleball in the back yard.”) and “backyard” as an adjective is a compound word (“Summer is a great time for backyard barbecues.”).

That makes perfect sense to me, and I would have no problem using those words that way. But Webster lists them both as compound words. So for the sake of ease of use, I’ve taken to using “backyard” the noun as a compound word.

The hyphen has been losing popularity as more informal ways of communicating, such as e-mails and text messaging, begin to influence word usage on Web sites and in newspapers and books.

The story I read also said, and I have to quote this directly because it sounded so good to me, was that “another factor in the hyphen’s demise is designers’ distaste for its ungainly horizontal bulk between words.”

Seriously, now. I thought I was overly nitpicky, but..."ungainly horizontal bulk”? That’s priceless.

Arguing language and word usage can sometimes be about as worthwhile as arguing politics. Everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong.

As long as you can find a source to cite that backs your same opinion, you can argue your side of the issue until you turn blue in the face.

And no matter how convincingly you make your case, it won’t be long until you again find words written and spelled and used in ways that you would never consider using them.

If you’ve got a bookshelf (book shelf? book-shelf?) lined with dictionaries and English manuals, you’ll be pretty well armed when you bring your opinions to the table.

Gotta run, but...does anyone have the name of the babysitter who was stung by a bumblebee while eating some ice cream, and then turned into a crybaby?

“I am a bear of very little brain,
and long words bother me.”
—Winnie The Pooh


  1. I use hyphens far more than I ought to. And there are some things that I swear should be compounded or hyphenated, but Microsoft Word claims should be two separate words ("soulmate/soul-mate/soul mate" being a good example... really seems like it should be a compound to me).

  2. Thought of another one... "makeup/make-up/make up".