Sunday, July 27, 2008

To Hyphenate, Or To Hyphen-hate?

I'm trying to fit in final editing of Tomorrowville (the novel, not the blog) between extended bouts of programming, and it doesn't fit well. The programming is complicated, and you need to breathe it during all your waking hours, and dream about it a bit, too. The program I'm writing has to call a commercial optimization routine. Here's a sample of the instructions for the data arrays I need to pass to that product:

If matbeg, matcnt, and matind are non-empty, the array matval contains the nonzero coefficients grouped by column (ie all coefficients for the same variable are consecutive). matbeg(i) contains the index in matval of the first coefficient for column i. matcnt contains the number of coefficients in column i. Note that the indices in matbeg must be in ascending order. Each entry matind(i) is the row number of the corresponding coefficient in matval(i).

There. About as clear as a passage in one of John Hawkes' early novels--and yet dull. You might think that impenetrable and boring are hard to achieve at the same time, and you might be right. But they sure aren't fun together.

Anyhow, I've stolen a little time for my editing. And my editor is great. But we seem to disagree on one topic: Hyphens.

Now, I don't care for them. I use them when they are required to form a compound adjective from two erstwhile nouns, as in "dirt-bike riders", and I can appreciate that they are needed in Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. But, in truth, I prefer to collapse them into a single word when possible.

For instance, I prefer "crosslegged" to "cross-legged." At one time, "cross-legged" was preferred; now, dictionaries are neutral on the subject. I suspect that in the near future, "crosslegged" will be the preferred form. English is a Germanic tongue, and the tendency is to smunch words together. We have even generally gone from "co-operation" to "cooperation," despite the weird-looking and unphonetic "coop" at the start.

Moreover, I think hyphens are most appropriate when you are putting together an unlikely combination of words. When they occur together so frequently as to be a single word, they should consider losing the hyphen. For example, everyone writes "bullheaded" rather than "bull-headed." "Dim-wit" and "dim-witted" have undergone the same gradual compaction.

And I write "hamhanded" rather than "ham-handed." Writing "ham-handed" not only looks cluttered to me, but seems as if I am suggesting that I've arrived at an enchanting new phrase, when in fact I'm deploying it as a single, obvious word.

My editor disagrees. She thinks that "narcoterrorist" is confusing to the reader. while "narco-terrorist" isn't. (Ironic note: "Narcoterrorist" entered English as a single, unhyphenated word; it was coined in the early 1980s by the President of Peru.)

Hyphens. What say you, dear readers?


Tim Stretton said...

I love 'em! In almost every example you've given, I'd go for the hyphenated approach. If I wanted my prose to look like German, I'd write in German (aside from the minor fact that I don't speak it...)

For me the hyphen is invaluable for aesthetic purposes--who wants to see "bookkeeper" on the page, for God's sake!--and sometimes to make the individual components of a word clearer.

That said, my boss insists on hyphenating "to-morrow" which is excessive even to me. After all, who'd write "To-morrowville?"

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I can't tell if you're being sly here: is there another way to write "bookkeeper," or are you teasing me?

I think there may be a difference between American and British practice here, as well. My Merriam-Webster (not yet MerriamWebster) dictionary lists "bullheaded" and "dimwitted" not as the preferred options, but as the only options.

In truth, I find my reading can adjust rapidly to various systems; I'm not thrown off by British spellings, for example (unless carried to archaic extremes, as in "gaol"). And I can read right past scads of hyphens, too (even when The Economist writes "co-operate"). But I think fields of hyphens tend to look a little cluttered and a touch schoolmarmish.

Or should that be school-marmish?

(nb "co-operate" is an especially odd one, as the Late Latin we stole it from was "cooperatus." Go figure.)

spyscribbler said...

To-morrow? That would drive me absolutely BATTY!

Tim Stretton said...


In the examples you give, I would always write:


but I'd only use "gaol" if I was trying for an archaic effect.

I have to say that Macmillan's copy editors took out rather a lot of my hyphens (in "market-place", for instance, where I found the litter of consonants in the middle unappealing...)

Alis said...

I love hyphens and use them at every possible opportunity and, judging by the way Testament was copy-edited, at some impossible opportunities too. On the very rare occasions when I let MS Word's spellchecker loose on my work, it has a nervous breakdown over my hyphenated neologisms. I think I'm with Tim, I'd hyphenate those conjoinings too, and cooperation and always looks weird to me!

David Isaak said...

Hi, guys--

Perhaps there is a law of conservation of hyphens? A lot of the ones that were cut from your manuscript are apparently seeking a home in mine.

Microsoft's spellchecker--which for years insisted, in an act of considerble irony, that "e-mail" wasn't a word--is a poor guide to anything except at best "maybe you ought to look at this."

I've seen some people who look at the things MS Word flags, and then change it so that MS Word is happy. Bad idea.

Anyhow, some of your orphaned hyphens will find shelter in my manuscript, but not very many of them!

Aliya Whiteley said...

I hate hyphens. I never use them. (Mind you, I said that about exclamation marks!)

The proofs of Three Things About Me contained at least two new hyphens on every page. I had to resist the urge to cross through them all in red pen.

Neil said...

That's not Aliya speaking; it's the ghost of a US naval officer.

Creative A said...

Supposedly I use a decent amount of hyphens, but only when I'm trying to give two separate words one meaning. So I would keep cooperate and tomorrow as one word, but day-shift I would spell with a hyphen, because it's one thing, but two separate words.


David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

I knew I could count on you.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Are you suggesting Aliya uses a ghostwriter? (Or even a ghost-writer?)

David Isaak said...

Hi, spyscribbler--

Wel-come to To-morrow-ville. I will be your auto-mated guide...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative A--

I'm of two minds about your example.If two words combine to form a compound adjective, they usually need a hyphen (even in my hyphen-averse eyes):

"He was an intellectual-property lawyer."

That is, we aren't talking about a "property lawyer" who happens to be interested in the life of the mind. "Intellectual" and "property" need to join up as a single word for the sentence to be read correctly. But it is also correct to write:

"He was a lawyer who specialized in intellectual property."

(Although I've seen some people who would sneak a hyphen in there, too. It doesn't go there.)

Now, I'd be disinclined to call it "intellectualproperty," especially as the trend is to call it "IP," which can act as a single-word noun or adjective.

But, "day shift"...That's one where the words have become so intimately connected that it would neither disturb me to to see hyphens nor would it bother me to see "dayshift", as in, "The dayshift workers began to arrive."

"Dayshift" isn't generally accepted as a single word yet, but I think it's headed there. I can be happy seeing it either way.

Sam Taylor said...

I hate hyphens too. In fact, I hate commas as well. And quotation marks. (But -- unlike Cormac McCarthy -- I've always loved the apostrophe.) I believe these elements slow down text and do more to pre

Most times I can get away without commas. But ometimes if I've got a long sentence that I know is a run on and I don't want people to lose the thread of what's happening, I'll use one. But -- in the case of parentheticals especially -- I prefer em-dashes.

And as I've said before, I only use quotation marks if the style is going to have a lot of action interspersed.

And hyphens. Try not to use them. Pure bullheadedness on my part. I'll cram two words together if I can get away with it and sometimes if I can't. But if I get into some phosphorescent eye-searing prose, sometimes I'll use one too.

Of course, I'm purposefully messing with formatting and style to get different effects. So I'm out there on the fringes anyway. Take my opinion for what it's worth.

Sam Taylor said...

I let that post go about three rewirtes too early. <:)

But it gives the idea.

Matt Curran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

Gotta agree with Tim - I'm definitely a hyphen-kinda-guy. Well, on the blog anyway. I think it depends what I'm writing. If it's a historical novel (which the last three have been) I tend to duck and dive the hyphens that fly my way. The couple of short-stories I'm writing now have a smattering of hyphens, commas, exclamation marks, colons, semi-colons... Which is another thing: who here uses a colon for something other than storing waste?

(PS: my apologies, that was just crude - I'm just happy that I've recently finished my first draft, and we're all friends here!)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

I agree that a lot of it is stylistic rather than strictly grammatical. One reason I'm being a little sticky on the issue in the book I'm editing is that it's a futuristic comedy, so I'm tending to compress words into single new words.

David Isaak said...

Hi Matt--

I love colons (in the written sense, though where would we be without the other kind) and semicolons, and would be hard put to write without them.

But I a writng workshop, I once had a submission returned by another student with "THE COLON AND SEMICOLON HAVE NO PLACE IN FICTION!"

Bad news for some eminent writers of fiction, that.

Sam Taylor said...

David --

As you know Bob, comedy is about timing.

... And timing is hard to do in writing. About the only thing you can do to express it is to try to control the rhythm. Not just the words, but the commas and periods and hyphens and blank space and even the paragraphs -- all of them get used instinctively to get the timing across (wow it's easy to pretend to know what I'm doing these days!)

If you've read your work a second time (I'm sure you have) and it's still funny the way you wrote it, then maybe you should keep the smushed words. I'd be leery of changing it too. :)

David Thayer said...

Are you quoting Alberto Fujimoro? Nobody quotes him anymore, but narcoterrorist is a word to be reckoned with.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

The only real way to tell is to see if other people laugh, I suppose...

David Isaak said...

Hi, DT--

Nope, not quoting Alberto. He's nearly forgotten, but the guy I'm quoting is even more forgotten: President Fernando Belaunde Terry.

But Fernando may have achieved a certain immortality. Dictionaries will one day mention his name under "narcoterrorist."