An American Editor

October 21, 2013

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

Recently, in editing my essays for my forthcoming book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN 978-1-4341-0369-7; Waking Lion Press; 2014), Ruth Thaler-Carter raised this question:

“Shouldn’t custom built locally be custom-built locally?”

There are three editors on this project — Ruth, myself, and Jack Lyon — which has meant there have been some lively language discussions and this was another such discussion. The opinion was split 2-1 in favor of hyphenation. I was the dissenting opinion and so won the battle as the author and final decider, but that doesn’t mean my decision was the grammatically right decision; it just means that as the named author I had final decision-making power and exercised it.

If you lookup “custom built” in the dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [5th ed] and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed]), you find the entry hyphenated followed by “adj.” It is those three letters that cause the problem.

I agree that custom built needs to be hyphenated in an adjectival phrase, such as custom-built computer. But when not used in an adjectival phrase, as in “custom built locally,” I see no reason to hyphenate. What does hyphenation accomplish? Is a reader misled in the absence of the hyphenation? Is “custom built locally” more understandable when hyphenated and, conversely, less understandable when not hyphenated?

This is similar to the questions raised by short term and long term. A look at the dictionaries indicates that these are also adjectives and hyphenated. But there is no mention of when they are not adjectives. For example, “When the short term expires, payment will be due.”

Editors rely on dictionaries and other usage tomes for guidance — and so editors should. But the emphasis has to be on guidance. Editors are supposed to consider, evaluate, and exercise judgment with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the reader understands the author.

So the question arises: Do phrases that are hyphenated when used as adjectives continue to be hyphenated when not used in adjectival form? (Yes, I recognize that there are other forms in which the hyphenated version is needed or required, including in certain noun situations; let’s ignore those situations and look toward a more general rule.)

(Let me make clear that editors have and should have differences of opinion about such matters of grammar as hyphenation. Regardless as to how we ultimately “resolve” today’s question, there is no absolute right or wrong. Rather, we seek a guiding rule. Ultimately, it is my belief that a professional editor can and should make decisions, such as whether to hyphenate or not, based on whether the editor can support the decision.)

Perhaps a good phrase to evaluate is decision making. I raise it because it does not appear in the dictionary yet whatever rule we generate would be as applicable to decision making as to short term and custom built. I suspect that we would all agree that in this instance, decision making should be hyphenated: “In the decision-making process, …” But should it be hyphenated in this usage: “It is clear that the decision making was faulty.” In this latter sentence, the absent but implied word is “process.” Is implication sufficient to warrant hyphenation?

Or what about these pairs: “Betty was the decision maker” versus “the decision-maker Betty”? In the former, the modifier precedes the phrase; in the latter it follows on its heels. The latter is clear that hyphenation is warranted; not so in the former.

In the end, I fall back on my “rule” that what governs is clarity. If hyphenation will make the meaning clearer, then hyphenate; if it neither enhances nor decreases clarity, then don’t hyphenate. I do not stand alone in this view. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., §7.85 for those who require “authority”) says:

“In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.”

The problem with Chicago‘s guidance is that it still leaves us in the dark whether to hyphenate short term, long term, decision making, and custom built — unless we latch onto the final clause, “hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability,” which is what I use to make my decision. In the case of decision making, I can also latch on to the noun + gerund examples Chicago provides in the table that accompanies §7.85, where Chicago specifically says “decision making” and “decision-making group.”

On the one hand, it strikes me that short term, long term, and custom built should be no different than decision making. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the case of these three phrases, the fact that the dictionaries hyphenate them is sufficient fallback justification to hyphenate them (even though they classify the hyphenated form as adjectival). I prefer, however, to base my decision on what counts most: readability.

Do you hyphenate? What is your justification for doing/not doing so?

October 24, 2012

On Language: When Should Two Become One?

I know we’ve already had a couple of discussions regarding hyphenation, especially hyphenating compound phrases, but there is still more to discuss: When should two become one?

If you check Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed), you will find long-standing with no recognition of longstanding. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed) gives you long-standing or longstanding, with the hyphenated version preferred. The New York Times uses longstanding. The style manuals, such as Chicago (16th ed), tell you to closeup prefixes such as post, pre, and anti, even when a double letter occurs.

What no one seems to tell us is when two should become one.

I have come to the conclusion that the test is whether the combined form can be viewed as a single word; that is, we hyphenate the phrase when the phrase can have meaning that is different from that of the single word form or when creating a single word is illogical on its face.

A good example of the test is the phrase small animal practice. First, in the absence of the hyphen we know the phrase can mean either a practice that deals with small animals or a small practice that deals with animals. When we add the hyphen so that it becomes small-animal practice, we know it means a practice that deals with small animals. But it would be illogical to make the phrase smallanimal practice a single word because the single word smallanimal has no meaning in English; each word has to stand on its own and can be combined only with a hyphen to be logical within the constraints of English.

Contrast small animal practice with long-standing practice. In the latter case, long-standing and longstanding are both meaningful and logical. In addition, each can stand on its own as a “word.” This, I think, is the logic behind closing up certain prefixes and suffixes rather than hyphenating them.

Certainly, as can be discerned from the examples above, there can be no confusion when long-standing becomes longstanding, but that is not true of small animal practice, which brings us back to the ultimate rule of making writing smoothly understandable without loss of precision of meaning.

Interestingly, Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), simply states for the entry long-standing “adj. So spelled (with the hyphen).” That’s the complete discussion. No explanation why we must use the hyphen nor recognition of the trend to do away with the hyphen.

I suppose that the argument can fairly be made that long-lived and long-range are hyphenated adjectives so why make an exception of long-standing? Conversely, one could ask why these two phrases cannot also be seen as single words and thus should be joined rather than hyphenated.

I admit I’m torn. I vacillate between long-standing and longstanding, but only consider long-range and long-lived. Invariably I end up with long-standing, but I do want to be able to justify my use of longstanding for those projects when I (or the author) do use the single form. The only sufficient justification I can give is that the meaning and readability are the same in both forms.

Spelling and grammar need to be viewed with the same lens and focus: What matters is readability and clarity of meaning; all else pales in importance. If the test is met, then what does the addition or subtraction of a hyphen matter? In the case of a compound adjective as in small animal practice, there are differences in both meaning and readability between small animal practice, small-animal practice, and smallanimal practice. In the case of longstanding, there is no difference between longstanding and long-standing, but long standing does have different meaning and readability characteristics.

The professional editor needs to make a decision on when two becomes one and be able to support that decision. English changes and we need to change with it, but we also need to understand why the change occurs and be able to justify it by applying the rules of meaning and readability.

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.

June 9, 2010

Is it Time to Go Beyond Hyphenation?

Today’s paper New York Times had a front page article spotlighting the Republican primary in South Carolina that described Nikki Haley, candidate for governor, as “an Indian-American,” as if this was a reason to vote for or against her. USA Today reported today that Hispanics — both illegal immigrants and legal residents and citizens — are leaving Arizona in anticipation of the new anti-immigration law becoming effective in a few weeks (see Documenting Me).

Hyphenation is a tricky topic because people want a group identity, but unlike anywhere else in the world, Americans are hyphenated. I haven’t yet met a hyphenated British, Jamaican, Algerian, German, Mexican, Brazilian person, only of hyphenated Americans.

We speak of ourselves as Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, even though our connection to Mexico, Ireland, or Africa is really tenuous. If someone tells me they are Mexican-American, I wonder whether that means they are immigrants just recently naturalized as American citizens or that they are Americans of Mexican descent (and if the latter, are they Mexican on both sides and for how many generations have they lived in America).

Here’s my question: If they were born in the United States, or were naturalized, aren’t they simply Americans?

Okay, I understand that this is an attempt by some of us to keep a link with a past with which we really have little familiarity or solidarity. And I also understand that it is an attempt by some to have a handy way to categorize others — either favorably or unfavorably. But if my paternal grandfather emigrated from Russia, my paternal grandmother from Poland, my paternal grandfather from Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my maternal grandmother was born in America (but her father emigrated from Germany and her mother from Spain), and both my parents and I were born in the United States, what am I?

What link should I keep? Why choose one link above the others? Does it matter that, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer exists? If I emigrate from the United Kingdom, is my hyphen United Kingdom, British, English, Scotch, Welch, Anglo, Saxon, Celtic, Irish, Jute, French (remember 1066)? If from my hodgepodge background I choose, say, Russian and declare myself Russian-American, what am I really saying about myself? What useful (and accurate) information am I really conveying to someone when I respond by saying “Russian-American” — especially as I have never been to Russia and only know it by what I read?

How many generations back should I go to establish my hyphen? I suppose we could all claim to be African-Americans if science is correct that our first ancestors did come from Africa. How tenuous a connection is acceptable?

I am not suggesting that we should not appreciate or celebrate our roots; after all, somewhere along the line those roots made us what we are. But for those of us who were born in the United States or who became naturalized citizens, isn’t it enough to simply say we are Americans?

“Why,” you ask (I’m sure), “are you raising this issue? Is it really an important matter?” Good questions; let me see if I can provide satisfactory answers.

When we classify ourselves by hyphenation, we separate ourselves from other hyphens. After all, we all know that a Mexican-American is not the same as an Irish-American. When we hear the hyphenated identity, we conjure up specific images. We group ourselves, and our interests, in accordance with the left side of the hyphen rather than with the right side. And this is tragic. We see the tragedy in, for example, the discussions regarding immigration. No one views the struggle to solve America’s immigration problem as solving an American problem; it is viewed as solving (or addressing) a hyphenation problem. For example, Mexican-Americans and Latino-Americans view the troubles in Arizona as being discriminatory against them.

But without hyphenation the perspective changes. The solutions, or where someone falls in the spectrum of solutions, may not change, but the perception of the problem changes. No one asks now why it is okay for other countries to limit the immigration of Americans (no hyphenation) but it is not okay for the United States to limit immigration of prehyphenates. Mexico objects to our limiting Mexican immigration but no one objects to Mexico’s limits on American immigration. Why? Because of hyphenation. The problem gets mischaracterized into a problem of hyphenation rather than of America. The problem is viewed as a restriction on the Mexican part of Mexican-American.

Are we electing presidents and governors and senators and other officeholders based on their hyphenation or on their qualification. I think if the former, it is a sad commentary on us.

Isn’t it offensive that Americans and legal immigrants believe they must flee Arizona, a state they have a right to live in, just to avoid being harassed. It certainly offends me to think that Americans have to flee America to avoid being harassed for being American or where they have a right to be.

Hyphenation does have a role to play today and certainly had a much larger role to play not so many decades ago. But hasn’t the time come when we should all just be Americans and unhyphenated? Yes, we should continue to celebrate ancestral days with parades and festivals and cultural organizations and activities — after all, what makes America great and different from everywhere else is the variety of nationalities that melded together, and continue to meld together, to create America. But perhaps we should just be Americans, without hyphenation.

Perhaps once we all think of ourselves as simply Americans, we will discover that we can, together, solve America’s problems — the universal problems that affect us all as Americans — and overcome the rancor that now pervades the political process. I do my part: When asked what I am, I always answer “American” — no hyphenation needed!

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