Friday, October 9, 2009

Rx for the hyphen in written English

Next to the comma, the hyphen is probably the most unappreciated and neglected element of the English language. This is because this punctuation mark hardly figures at all in speech; no one really bothers—and hardly need to bother at all—to make the presence of the hyphen felt when uttering English words compounded by a hyphen. The tongue simply enunciates hyphenated words with a millisecond gap or so, as in “flood-ravaged cities,” and the hyphen’s job is done.

In written English, however, the presence of the hyphen where it should be—when using nouns to modify adjectives, and when using phrases to modify nouns—spells the difference between good and bad English and between the disciplined and undisciplined writer. It is for this reason that I wrote the essay below, “Hyphenating for clarity,” in my column in The Manila Times over two-and-a-half-years ago. I suggest you read it to find out how your English fares with respect to hyphen usage and how grammatically disciplined you are in your written English.

Hyphenating for clarity

The clarity and precision of our written sentences are greatly dependent on how well we modify their various elements. Usually, of course, we modify nouns and pronouns with single adjective or adjective phrases (“The long wait is over.” “It was worth the trouble.”) and verbs with single adverbs or adverb phrases (The day was exceedingly bright.” “The fugitive was summarily brought to justice.”). Such grammatically simple modifications rarely leave room for doubt as to our intended meaning.

Every now and then, however, we need more complicated modifiers to convey precisely what we have in mind, as in this sentence: “Give me a real world example of a nation that was able to lift itself by its bootstraps.” The problem is that while the noun phrase “example of a nation” looks like it’s being modified by another noun phrase, “real world,” the context is so difficult to pin down. Are we referring to a “world example of a nation” that is real, which sounds nonsensical, or to an “example of a nation” in the real world, which seems to make sense but only vaguely?

Thankfully, English has a handy grammatical tool for fixing problems caused by the unusual compounding of its words: the hyphen. When we use the hyphen to form the composite word “real-world,” in particular, the semantic problem with the sentence we examined earlier simply vanishes: “Give me a real-world example of a nation that was able to lift itself by its bootstraps.” This time, it’s clear that “real-world” is meant to be a compound noun modifying the noun “example.”

Hyphenation can help us achieve clarity in meaning in two major grammatical situations: (1) when we use nouns to modify adjectives, and (2) when we use phrases to modify nouns. There are some generally accepted rules for hyphenating such compound modifiers.

Hyphenating nouns used to modify adjectives. When we use a noun up front to modify an adjective, we need to put a hyphen between them for clarity: “The insulin-dependent patient lived an otherwise normal life.” “The country promoted labor-intensive industries instead of capital-intensive ones.”

Such noun-adjective modifiers, however, typically need to do away with the hyphen when they come after the noun they are meant to modify: “The patient is no longer insulin dependent.” “The industries the country went into are not labor intensive.”

Hyphenating phrases used to modify nouns. When a phrase is meant to modify a noun up front, we need to hyphenate the phrase for clarity: “The big-budget film took five years to finish.” “The astute entrepreneur took advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity.” (See what happens when we knock off those hyphens.)

When adverb-adjective phrases are used to modify a noun up front, we need to hyphenate them if the adverb doesn’t end in “-ly”: “Her long-ailing husband made a dramatic recovery.” “The short-tempered boxer got knocked out early in the second round.” But we should never do so when the adverb ends in “-ly”: “The US dollar is the nearest we have to a globally accepted currency.” “A hastily organized press conference was called by the beleaguered senatorial candidate.”

When one of the adjectives in a two-adjective modifying phrase is meant to modify the other, we need to place a hyphen between them for clarity: “The man lost his light-red jacket in the mall.” When both adjectives modify the same noun, however, we need to skip the hyphen: “The man lost his light red jacket in the mall.” (Figure that one out.)

Using the suspensive hyphen. To streamline sentences, we can use the so-called suspensive hyphen for a series of two or more hyphenated compound modifiers with the same base element: “Small- and medium-scale industries deserve government subsidy.” “We need five-, six-, and nine-meter poles for this project.” Here, the words “scale” and “meter” are base elements of the modifiers that are used only once for conciseness.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 2, 2007 issue © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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