DEATH-KNELL OR DEATH KNELL?
By: CHARLES McGRATH
T HE SHORTER OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, THE SCALED-DOWN, TWO- VOLUME VERSION OF THE OLD MAMMOTH 20-VOLUME O.E.D., JUST GOT A LITTLE SHORTER.
With the dispatch of a waiter flicking away flyspecks, the editor, Angus Stevenson, eliminated some 16,000 hyphens from the sixth edition, published last month. “People are not confident about using hyphens anymore,” he said.
“They’re not really sure what they’re for.” The dictionary is not dropping all hyphens. The ones in certain compounds remain (“well-being,” for example), as do those indicating a word break at the right-hand margin — the use for which this versatile little punctuation mark, a variation on the slash, the all-purpose medieval punctuation, was invented in the first place.
What’s getting the heave are most hyphens linking the halves of a compound noun. Some, like “ice cream,” “fig leaf,” “hobby horse” and “water bed,” have been fractured into two words, while many others, like “bumblebee,” “crybaby” and “pigeonhole,” have been squeezed into one.
That ice cream~~ and ‘‘bumblebee’’ ever had hyphens to begin with suggests an excess of fussiness on the part of older lexicographers, and may explain some of Mr. Stevenson’s annoyance. The issue of proper hyphenation has always been vexing for the Brits, far more than it is for us, and occasioned perhaps the single crankiest article in Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” first published in 1926.
“The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English education,” he began, and about halfway through he threw up his hands and said of the examples he had been citing, “the evidence they afford” is “that common sense is in tact far trom common.
Fowler was in favor of hyphens. They sprinkle his own text like dandruff and, along with his fetish for the ampersand, give it a musty, old-fashioned look . This is why designers hate to see hyphens flecking the page, and indeed they are antique, unnecessary marks in many instances.
But that’s also part of their appeal. They’re records of how the language changes, and in the old days, before the Shorter Oxford got into the sundering business, they indicated a sort of halfway point, a way station in the progress of a new usage. Two terms get linked together — “tiddly-wink,” let’s say, or “cell-phone” — and then over time that little hitch is eroded, worn away by familiarity. In a few years, for example, people will be amused to discover that email used to be e-mail.
The greatest hyphenator ever was Shakespeare (or Shak-speare in some contemporary spellings) because he was so busy adding new words, many of them compounds, to English: “sea-change,” “leap-frog,” “bare-faced,” “fancy-free.”
Milton also hyphenated a lo t (“dew-drops,” “man-slaughter,” “eye-sight”) and so did Donne, who loved compounds like “death-bed” and “passing-bell,” where the hyphen carries almost metaphorical weight, a reminder of what Eliot called his singular talent for yoking unlike ideas.
At the other end of the spectrum is E.E. Cummings, who turned his back on not just the hyphen but punctuation in general, and in this respect was way ahead of his time . Cummings wrote back in the age of real type, but looked forward to what might be called the sanserification of print: the way our computer versions of type are dropping all the little vestiges of metal fonts — the serifs, or pleasing little curves and points jutting out from a letter in traditional fonts, and, for that matter, the hyphen, the comma, the quotation mark . Our print, once a replica of hand-lettering, now aspires to the condition of the computer screen and the text message.
Even Mr. Stevenson puts in a good word for the hyphen especially beloved by grammarians and so vexing to civilians, the one that turns a noun phrase into a compound adjective . A slippery-eel sales-man, for example, sells slippery eels, while a slippery eel salesman takes your money and slinks away.
Textbooks used to be full of examples like these (English-language lessons and English language lessons; an odd-looking glass and an odd looking glass) but except in places like The New Yorker, which punctiliously hyphenates all such phrases, ambiguous or not, this useful, elegant hyphen has become a nicety, resorted to only in cases of extreme confusion and sometimes not even then . Most of the time we’re not troubled, either because we’re good at figuring things out (a high school student is most likely someone attending secondary school rather than a pupil puffing a joint) or because we no longer pay much attention to punctuation to begin with.
In many cases the hyphen is probably an affectation — like wearing spats, say. And if Mr. Stevenson is right about the general confusion over hyphen usage, a lot of us were putting on our spats improperly. We wore them with Bermuda shorts _ so to speak. But they did look pretty good some-times — spiffy and genteel — and gave our prose an extra strut. We may feel a little under-dressed —underdressed, rather without them.
The NEW YORK TIMES Newspaper
Sunday, October 7,, 2007
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