Copy-wise: Don’t forget the hyphens

Good punctuation isn’t just a nicety for academics and grammar snobs. Without it, our communications can be a lot more confusing, troublesome and even costly.

For example, the lack of an Oxford comma recently dealt a legal blow to a Maine dairy that was fighting overtime pay for its delivery drivers, when a court ruled the description of who was and who wasn’t covered by overtime rules was too ambiguous to find in the employer’s favour. Tell those dairy drivers good punctuation doesn’t matter.

Most of the time, lists can work with or without Oxford commas, so the decision on whether or not to use them usually boils down to simple style preference. Once in a while, however, this so-called serial comma is a must… because, without it, some sentences can be ambiguous at best or highly confusing at worst. (Consider, for example, what this Oxford-comma-free sentence suggests: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Pope Francis and Björk.”)

There’s another source of ambiguity I’m seeing a lot lately, though: the habit of leaving out hyphens in compound adjectives. Why is that a bad thing? Look again at the sentence in parentheses in the paragraph above and imagine it without the hyphens in ‘Oxford-comma-free’. What you get is this:

‘Consider, for example, what this Oxford comma free sentence suggests…’

Is the sentence ‘free’ while also having something to do with the ‘Oxford comma’? Or is the sentence from ‘Oxford’ also ‘comma free’? Without the hyphens, the meaning becomes a whole lot harder to parse.

Other examples abound:

“I saw a man eating alligator.” Unless you’re having locally-hunted dinner in Cajun country, the correct version is probably: “I saw a man-eating alligator.” (Suggestion from Woodward English.)

“Santa should wear a fire proof vest.” No, what he should wear is a fire-proof vest. (Inspired by Mignon Fogarty, aka ’Grammar Girl’.)

“Because a violent weather conference isn’t the same as a violent-weather conference.” (Credit: The Wichita Eagle’s Grammar Monkeys Twitter account.)

“Because a small-state senator is not the same as a small state senator.” (Grammar Monkeys again.)

 

So next time you string two adjectives together in front of a noun, look at them and ask whether a hyphen would help make your meaning clearer.

As Lynne Truss wrote in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a classic book of punctuation stickling: “Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens. Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party would all be lost without it.”

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