An American Editor

October 1, 2012

On Language: The Professional Editor and the Hyphen

I know it hasn’t been very long since I last discussed the problem of hyphenation (see The Business of Editing: The Hyphenated Compound), yet it needs to be raised again. I recently had a discussion with a couple of younger editors — younger in terms of age and experience — who are members of a wholly different educational generation from me, regarding compound adjectives and the hyphen.

It is increasingly clear to me that our educational system is failing horrendously as regards passing on to new generations basic language skills. And this lack of skills is being transferred to a broader population as editors are drawn from these groups. I have also come to realize that probably the most valuable course that can be taken in school is rarely, if ever, taught in high school and is not a mandatory course in college: logic/philosophy.

I am appalled at how poorly many of our “educated” classes have no grasp of language fundamentals and cannot follow or decipher the logic of a communication. Why, I’m sure you are asking, am I raising these issues now?

Consider these two phrases:

  1. in my small animal practice
  2. bounded by a salmon-spawning creek

What do these phrases mean?

The first phrase is unclear; the second phrase is clear but illogical. Yet both of these phrases were unanimously considered correct by my younger colleagues — without any question.

Consider the first phrase. What does “in my small animal practice” mean? Does it mean that I have a small business that deals with animals or does it mean I have a business that deals with small animals as opposed to large animals? This unhyphenated phrase leaves the reader guessing, causes the careful reader to pause and ponder, and permits the reader to draw a wrong conclusion; in other words, it fails the primary test of language and grammar: crystal-clear communication.

If the phrase means I have a business that deals with small animals, then the correct construction is “in my small-animal practice.” Why? Because small and animal are really intended to be a single “word” and the hyphen indicates that they belong together. The hyphen says that “animal” neither stands alone nor belongs with practice. It makes the meaning crystal clear.

In contrast, if the phrase means that I have a small business that deals with animals, it is not easy to clarify the construction by using or omitting the hyphen; instead, the phrase should be rephrased. The point is that clear communication is of utmost importance and hyphenation is intended to bring clarity to what would otherwise be unclear or questionable. The last thing an author or an editor should want is for a reader to involuntarily pause in an attempt to try to glean what the author intends, especially if the pause occurs on a minor or insignificant point.

The second phrase, “bounded by a salmon-spawning creek,” is on its face illogical, yet many readers and editors and authors think it is properly constructed. As written, the creek is spawning the salmon, yet we all know that it is salmon that spawn salmon (unless, of course, we do not know what spawn means, in which case it is worth having a good dictionary handy), not creeks. Creeks are where salmon go to spawn. The correct phrasing is “bounded by a salmon spawning creek” but in this construct, a reader may well pause to try to interpret what is meant because the phraseology seems a bit awkward even if grammatically correct. Thus, rephrasing is better.

The problem is, however, that my younger colleagues with whom I was discussing hyphenation of compound phrases didn’t grasp the illogic of the phrase and thus did not see it as erroneous. I think it is because students after my educational generation were not and are not required to take courses in logic/philosophy and thus lose the opportunity to learn to dissect language constructs based on logic (as opposed to based on rigid rules of grammar). Essentially, that is what a good basic, introductory course on logic/philosophy does: It teaches one to construct and destruct language based on logic, which is what a professional editor does.

(It is worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect when “rules” of grammar are applied yet illogical. It is also worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect rule-wise yet fail the fundamental test of good grammar, which is crystal-clear communication. A professional editor keeps these limitations in mind while editing.)

A professional editor’s primary function is to ensure that clear, consistent communication occurs between author and reader. It is like a syllogism in that B must follow A or the argument falters. It is not enough for an editor to know that compound adjectives are hyphenated; the editor must also know that by hyphenating the compound phrase, the phrase is now crystal clear and not as muddy (or muddier) as before. Yet for many editors, simply following the rule to hyphenate the compound is sufficient; there is little thought being given to the subtleties of meaning and communication-miscommunication.

This is why an author needs a professional editor. The author already knows the intended meaning and thus reads a phrase as crystal clear. Few authors can distance themselves far enough from their work so as to question the subtleties of language and grammar choices. And this is why an author should expect to pay more than a few dollars for a professional editor.

The professional editor doesn’t simply ramble through a manuscript and add a hyphen here, delete a hyphen there. The professional editor considers what that addition or deletion does to the clarity of the message, and what subtle meaning changes occur as a result of that addition or deletion.

Some real constraints on editors, however, must be noted. Whereas in the ideal world, an editor has all the time that is needed to properly edit and is working for a client with an unlimited budget, the real world imposes both time and budgetary constraints, which affect the depth of editorial analysis. Even so, some phrases should stand out as potential obstacles to reader understanding, and those phrases are the compound phrases that beg for the addition or removal of a hyphen and the application of a test of logicality.

3 Comments »

  1. Yes! Claity motivated by quality thinking is all!

    Like

    Comment by harrisfr — October 5, 2012 @ 9:45 am | Reply

  2. ” …the editor must also know that by hyphenating the compound phrase, the phrase is now crystal clear and not as muddy (or muddier) as before.”
    Clarity and logic suggest that this should be phrased differently, more like:
    “… not as muddy as (or even muddier than) before.”

    Like

    Comment by Shmuel — October 5, 2012 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

    • True. Alas, this is the problem with self-editing. I don’t catch all my mistakes.🙂

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — October 6, 2012 @ 4:46 am | Reply


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