Policy maker, policy-maker, or policymaker? Pre-eminent or preeminent? First grader or first-grader? E-mail or email?

Hyphens can be tricky, but that's no reason to tear your hair out.

Hyphens can be tricky, but that’s no reason to tear your hair out.

According to Sturgis’s Law #5: “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

The tricky thing here is that the dictionary will only tell you what to do if your word is in there. Often it isn’t. If it is, you’re in luck — as long as you don’t notice that (1) dictionaries are wildly inconsistent when it comes to hyphenation, and (2) dictionaries often disagree with each other.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged doesn’t list “policy-maker” or “policymaker.” This may be taken to mean that MW considers it two words: “policy maker.” The American Heritage Dictionary, however, lists “policymaker” as one word, no hyphen. And while we’re at it, MW thinks “policyholder” is one word. “Slaveholder” is one word, but “slave owner” is two.

For several editions now, the Chicago Manual of Style has been trying to impose method on the hyphenation madness. In section 7.85 of the 16th edition you’ll find a handy-dandy several-page chart. It sorts compounds by category, parts of speech, and specific words; gives examples of each subcategory; and then summarizes the “rule.”

It’s useful, it really is. I refer to it often. But it too will lead you into inconsistency, not least when you notice that British English uses hyphens more liberally than American English and the sky hasn’t fallen in yet. Chicago “prefers a spare hyphenation style.” So do the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The operative word here is “style.” In matters of style, there’s generally a big gray area where choices have to be made.

What editors and teachers and style guides tend to forget is that hyphens serve a purpose — beyond driving editors crazy, that is. Hyphens are joiners: they link words into temporary compounds and attach prefixes and suffixes to root words. Over time temporary compounds may become permanent if they’re used enough. A few years ago “e-mail” was generally hyphenated, but these days it’s often one word: “email.”

“Policy maker” and “policy making” are in transition. That’s why one dictionary makes them two words and another closes them into one, and you’ll sometimes see “policy-maker” and “policy-making.” I suspect that the words are closing up fastest among people who write about public policy. They and their readers think of “policymaker” as one word, not two.

If you read books that were published a century, or even a few decades, ago, you’ll probably find hyphens where they’re seldom found today. “Rail road” was once two words, then it was hyphenated, then it fused into one: “railroad.” Other compounds have split into two distinct words: “no-one” is still out there, but “no one” is now standard. The hyphen is no longer needed to tell readers that “no” and “one” are a unit.

What if the potential for confusion still exists? That’s part of the gray area. A readership of educators and parents of young children will probably realize at first glance that a “first grader” is a kid in first grade. A more general audience might need a little help. I generally hyphenate “first-grader” myself, but when I’m editing, I’ll nearly always go with the author’s choice.

How about “high school student”? Yes, it is possible to read that to mean a school student on drugs, but this generally involves some contortion on the reader’s part or (more likely) an affection for puns. If your readers are familiar with the term “high school,” you can safely omit the hyphen.

Once in a while, though, the little hyphen is crucial. Chickens live in a coop; people buy food at a co-op. Newspaper columns are op-eds (an abridgment of “opposite the editorial page”), not opeds.  Merriam-Webster’s hyphenates “co-ed” as both noun and adjective; American Heritage says it can go either way: “co-ed” or “coed.”

Which brings up another handy thing about hyphens: they can join, but they can also separate. In “co-op,” “op-ed,” and “co-ed,” the hyphen tells you to read or pronounce each word as two syllables, not one. This is why plenty of writers use a hyphen in words like “pre-eminent”: to signify that “pre-” is a prefix and that the first syllable of the word is not “preem.”

Merriam-Webster’s and Chicago don’t like such hyphens, so rule-following copyeditors routinely strike them out, whether they’re useful or not. I don’t know about you, but I can’t look at “reignite” without seeing “reign-ite” or “coworker” without seeing “cow-orker,”  so I’m inclined to deal with hyphens on a case-by-case basis. Be wary of “one size fits all” rules when it comes to hyphens, or anything else for that matter.

A hyphen between prefix or suffix and root word can also subtly call attention to the root. The authors I edit often hyphenate “pro-,” “anti-,” and “non-” words. Whether they’re doing it instinctively or by choice, I suspect this is why they do it — because I do it myself. To me “pro-choice” is stronger than “prochoice,” “anti-liberal” than “antiliberal,” and so on.

The author of a current copyediting job hyphenates “desert-like.” Chicago says “-like” compounds should be closed if they’re closed in Webster’s, and sure enough, “desertlike” is given in the entry for “desert.” Is that a good reason to close up “desert-like”? I don’t think so. “Desert-like” calls a little more attention to “desert,” and the passage it’s part of is a little more vivid as a result. So I entered “desert-like” on my style sheet, so the proofreader will realize it’s intentional, and moved on.

Hyphens are handy, versatile little buggers. Sure, they can be overused, but so can anything else.  Do learn whatever conventions prevail in your field or genre, but don’t worry about hyphens when you’re first-drafting. Even if the whole world will think you’re stupid because you put a hyphen in the wrong place, you don’t have to worry about it yet. Not until you’re ready for the whole world — or at least your writers’ group, or an editor — to have a look at your ms.

When you get to your second and subsequent drafts, that’s soon enough to think about whether this or that hyphen serves a purpose.



Who Do You Write For?

I’ve been struggling with this one. “Who do you write for?” keeps getting tangled up with “who’s your audience?” They’re related, but they’re not the same. Who are you writing for before you have an audience out there? Let’s leave the out there audience aside for now. We’ll come back to it soon, I promise.

Aside: Yes, I do know that purists will insist on “Whom do you write for?” or “For whom do you write?” At the moment I’m not writing primarily for purists. Be warned.

So the other morning, while procrastinating warming up, I went over to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and found “When Words Stop” by Beth Taylor. Beth Taylor was writing for me, whether she knew it or not, so I had to write back:

Been there . . . For me writing is a conversation. If no one’s listening and (maybe more important) if no one’s speaking back and otherwise responding, the words dry up. Any actor can tell you that monologues are hard to pull off. One-person shows are even harder. In a one-person show, the actor is rarely talking just to her- or himself. Sometimes she’s talking to the audience, or a particular person in the audience. Other times she’s addressing a character that only she can see at first, but in doing so she makes that character visible to the audience. Writers can do that — we’re often doing it without knowing it.

When I write, I write alone -- but there's always someone there.

When I write, I write alone — but there’s always someone there.

Aha. That’s who I’m writing for: someone that only I can see but that I’m in continual conversation with when I write. That someone has evolved over the years. She wasn’t always there.

At first I wrote to keep from cracking up. I also wrote to turn myself on — remember the desert fantasies? This was back in the day when writing on paper was the only option. Most of the paper I wrote on got burned in my parents’ fireplace or, later, ripped to shreds and put out with the trash. This was a big clue that I wasn’t writing for anyone else. I destroyed most of what I wrote because I was afraid someone else would find it and think I was crazy.

The time came — and it came pretty quickly — when writing for myself wasn’t enough. I wanted people to read at least some of what I wrote. I thought it was worth reading. In college I reviewed books and the occasional concert. I wrote regular op-ed columns, mostly political commentary. Most of my published writing since then has consisted of reviews and commentary, with significant forays into poetry, journalism, theater, and, most recently, fiction.

But that doesn’t explain why I sometimes hesitate over a phrase and think: No, that’s not right or That’s going too far. Or why I make choices that I know bloody well aren’t commercial: they limit my publication options, which weren’t all that great to start with. Who do I write for?

Turns out that the choices I make are clues to the identity of this mysterious entity, the reader who makes writing worthwhile.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to read about and even identify with characters who aren’t like them in some ways.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to be momentarily perplexed or even pissed off but doesn’t want to be hoodwinked for no reason.

I’m writing for the person who once in a while will be struck by a turn of phrase and think, That’s exactly right. Who might even toy with possible alternatives and finally conclude, Yeah, you made the right choice.

All of which, come to think of it, describes the sort of reader I’d like to be, and try to be: one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.

Let's see where the road goes, huh?

Let’s see where the road goes, huh?

Details, Details

“The devil’s in the details” — or is it God that’s in the details? God and the devil are always mixing themselves up, but that’s a post for another time, another blog. What matters is that details are important.

For writers, they’re crucial. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)

Where do details come from? They’re all around you. All you have to do is pay attention.

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

I was reminded of this yesterday when I posted “Little Changes” to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. On our walks, my dog and I often follow a trail that skirts the school bus parking lot at the nearby elementary school. Last year four buses parked there. They went away for the summer, but when school resumed earlier this month, there were again four buses in the parking lot.

124 signFrom a distance they looked like the same four buses — not only do school buses look alike, big, long, and bright yellow, but they look a lot like they did when I was a kid back in the Pleistocene. But they weren’t the same buses. Each bus has a number. Last year the regulars were 121, 123, 124, and 117H. This year 124 is back, but with different companions: 125, 126, and 116H.

Close-up of the 116H bus

Close-up of the 116H bus

Finally I got curious about the H. What made 116H and 117H different from their buddies? This wasn’t obvious from a distance either, so I looked more closely.

116H seats fewer kids than the non-H buses — because it leaves room for a wheelchair and has a wheelchair entrance at the back. The H, it seems, stands for “Handy Bus” (so it says on the side of the bus), and “Handy” is probably shorthand for “handicap access.”

Back in the Pleistocene, the school buses in my town weren’t accessible by wheelchair. By noticing the details, I learned something about school buses. Will this ever come up in my writing? (Other than this blog, I mean.) Probably not, but who knows? If I ever write a murder mystery, maybe a school bus will have been seen at the scene of the future crime. Maybe some alert soul will have noticed the number.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Details often sprout into images, similes, and metaphors. Images, similes, and metaphors aren’t scary when they grow organically from your own experience. If you mess around in a garden, for instance, your mind is almost certainly linking what your eyes see, your hands feel, and your nose smells to other things in your life. When I look at my little garden, sometimes I think about making pesto or eating cherry tomatoes, but other times I think, What a mess! I can’t see what’s going on here.

Which is what I sometimes think when I’m revising and come to a passage that’s drowning in detail. Pruning is good, both for prose and for shrubs.

I often think in generalities and abstractions, but when I describe my thoughts to someone else, I almost always reach for concrete images to illustrate them. No surprise there: most useful generalizations are firmly grounded in specifics. In the spring of 1970, I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Here’s a story from that time, as recounted several decades later:

Lauinger Library opened toward the end of my freshman year, about a month before the Kent State shootings shut the campus down. Within a very few weeks footpaths had appeared across the green lawn fronting the library, one leading from the main gate, the other from the corner of Healy Hall where foot traffic from several dorms and classroom buildings converged. Imagine a terrestrial ice cream cone, with the traffic circle standing in for one scoop of your favorite flavor and the tip at the library’s front door. While war raged in Southeast Asia and anti-war movements fought it across the United States and around the world, university officials battled the entire student body over the right way to walk to the library. The officials contended that we should follow the existing asphalt walkway around the perimeter of the lawn. Our footsteps, in their hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands, countered that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line.

Our footsteps carried the day. Officialdom conceded, and the foot-beaten paths were enshrined in asphalt.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line”: Well, duh — everybody knows that. But the truism doesn’t stick in my mind the way that story has all these years. It taught me to pay attention to something that just about all of us tend to forget: footsteps matter.

Footsteps, come to think of it, are like details. Pay attention to them. They’re important.


Poets and Punctuation

A couple of posts ago I advised even non-poets to read lots of poetry. “Good poets make every word count,” I wrote.

Synchronicity rules: The wonderful Brain Pickings e-newsletter just featured a short digression by poet Mary Oliver on this very subject. She set out to “write a poem that uses no punctuation” so she could “see what I could do simply with the line break and the cadence of the line and so forth.”

The poem is “Seven White Butterflies.” The Brain Pickings story includes both the text of the poem and a video of the poet reading it. Check it out.

Of Dots and Dashes

Dashes and ellipses. Many editors don’t like them. Dashes and ellipses take up space. They call attention to themselves. And they’re often overused: writers may resort to dashes and ellipses when they can’t figure what else to do.

But dashes and ellipses are handy critters. Used with care, they’ll help you shape your writing to say what you want and sound the way you want it to.

First off, what are they?

An ellipse consists of three periods in a row. (In British English, periods are called full stops.) Like this: . . .

There’s a space between the dots, and one at each end. What your word-processing program calls an ellipsis looks like this: … No spaces between the dots. If you want to score brownie points with your editors and your more discerning readers, don’t use this shortcut. Type dot-space-dot-space-dot.

The ellipsis serves an important purpose in academic and other nonfiction: when you’re quoting from another source and you want to abridge the quote, the ellipsis is used to indicate where words have been left out. Say I wanted to quote the second sentence in the second paragraph of this post but not all of it: “Used with care, they’ll help you shape your writing to say what you want and sound the way you want it to.”

I’d render it thus: “Used with care, they’ll help you shape your writing to . . . sound the way you want it to.”

Important resources for learning more about ellipses, dashes, and other stuff

Important resources for learning more about ellipses, dashes, and other stuff

Aside: Leaving words and whole sentences out of quoted material can distort and misrepresent the original author’s intent. Use ellipses with care. For more about this use of the ellipsis, consult your favorite style and grammar handbook.

In fiction and non-scholarly nonfiction, the ellipsis indicates a trailing off. Words are being omitted not because they’re being dropped from a quotation but because they aren’t being said.

Here’s a snippet from my novel in progress. Giles and Shannon are friends. Wolfie and Pixel are dogs. Giles is meeting Wolfie for the first time.

Giles was pointing at Wolfie. “Who, or what, is that?”

“This is Wolfie,” said Shannon. “I told you about Wolfie.”

“You did,” Giles conceded, “but I wasn’t prepared . . .” He fluttered his fingers at Pixel, who was lying in the hallway paying close attention.

Giles doesn’t complete his sentence. He shifts his focus — and the reader’s — from Wolfie to Pixel. The reader doesn’t know what Giles was about to say or why he didn’t say it.

In dialogue the dash, in contrast to the ellipsis, indicates an interruption. Here’s an example from later in the same scene. Giles and Shannon are both artists. They’re looking at a wall mural in Shannon’s house.

With his coffee mug Giles indicated a long line across the middle distance. “What this wall needs,” he pronounced, “is some movement.”

“Thank you, Mr. Picasso,” Shannon said. “You could just stand there and direct traffic —” She stopped short. “Aha!” she said, setting her coffee down and joining Giles at the wall.

Shannon interrupts herself. Dashes can also be used when characters interrupt each other. An interrupted sentence sounds different from one that trails off. It’s like the difference between walking into a door because you didn’t see it and slowing down before you get there.

Dashes have other uses too. Like commas and parentheses, they often come in pairs. Note my sentence above:

He shifts his focus — and the reader’s — from Wolfie to Pixel.

The dashes could be replaced by either commas or parentheses:

He shifts his focus,  and the reader’s, from Wolfie to Pixel.

He shifts his focus (and the reader’s) from Wolfie to Pixel.

Or the punctuation could be dropped altogether:

He shifts his focus and the reader’s from Wolfie to Pixel.

I chose dashes on the fly because I heard “and the reader’s” as a very slight detour, a stepping-back from the sentence before following it to the end. If I revise the sentence (which I probably won’t — this is a blog after all!), I might consider the alternatives. Set off by commas, “and the reader’s” is more fully integrated into the sentence, but not as fully as it would be with no punctuation at all.

Set off by parentheses, it becomes an afterthought, as in “Why include it at all?” When I put something in parens, it’s often because I have a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t need to be there but I can’t bear to delete it. The parens are there till I muster the nerve to yank it out.

Now take another look at the paragraph just before the preceding one. There’s a sentence in there that includes a dash and an exclamation point and parentheses all bundled up together. Am I going to warn you “Don’t do this at home”? I am not. I’m going to say “Try it. See if it works. If it doesn’t, try something else.”

No Need to Shout!!

99% of all editors, writing instructors, and experienced writers will tell you: “Use emphasis sparingly.” Emphasis includes ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, and italics. And exclamation points!!!

(OK, 99% is an unverified statistic. I made it up — you know, to emphasize my point.)

This is why our gatekeeper friends will relegate a manuscript to the slush pile if the first couple of pages include too many italicized, bolded, underscored, or ALL CAPPED words and phrases. Fairly or not, they’re leaping to the conclusion that the writer who relies heavily on gimmicks is not ready for prime time.

How many is “too many”? If they’re the first thing a person notices when she pulls your ms. out of the envelope or opens the file, that’s too many. Aim for “none” and you’ll probably get it about right.

“But,” you wail, “how do I show what’s important?”

Good question!

When we speak, we can emphasize words and phrases by speaking them more loudly, or drawing them out, or exaggerating their each and every syllable. We can use our hands and our faces to express our feelings or underscore a point.

You can replicate some of these methods in writing. You can describe how a character said something and/or what she was doing while she said it. Too much description, though, can slow a passage down when you want it to move right along. Lucky for all of us, written English offers some powerful tools to call attention to whatever you want to call attention to. and without using ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, italics, and other gimmicks. Learning to use them is part of the writer’s craft.

So how does one go about this?

Here’s where I advise even non-poets to read lots of poetry. Good poets make every word count. They have to: poems use fewer words than stories, essays, and full-length books. They read their written words aloud and pay attention to how they sound. Poets who work in traditional forms, like the sonnet, use meter and rhyme to emphasize important words. Words at the ends of lines and lines at the ends of stanzas get particular emphasis. And so on.

Prose writers use sentences and paragraphs the way poets use lines and stanzas. Words at the beginning and, especially, at the end of a sentence are emphasized. Likewise sentences at the beginning or end of a paragraph, and paragraphs at the beginning or end of a scene.

Have you ever confronted a paragraph that sits on the page like a dark gray lump? One sentence follows another with no break, maybe for a whole page or more. If the eye gives in to the natural temptation to skim through to the end, the mind is almost certainly going to miss something important.

But there’s no need to bold or italicize the sentence you want to call the reader’s attention to. If that paragraph belongs to you, try breaking it so that your key sentences fall either at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of another. If you’re reading it in a book, identify a place or two where author or editor might have started a new paragraph. (You may not find any such places. It’s possible that the paragraph really needed to be that long.)

I like long loopy sentences, but I also know that long sentences tend to lose energy. So I pay close attention to the words, phrases, and clauses that make them up. When I’m editing, I’ll sometimes break a compound sentence in two in order to focus more attention on each of its parts.

Here’s where the oft-repeated advice to “omit needless words” comes in handy. “Needless words” are the ones that camouflage or otherwise distract attention from the important stuff. What’s tricky is that you have to identify the important stuff before you can decide what’s needless, and this often doesn’t happen till a second or third draft.

The best way to develop your skill at emphasizing key points without resorting to gimmicks!! is by experimenting on your own work, getting feedback from editors and other writers, and giving feedback to other writers on their in-process work. Anyone out there have an example to share with other readers of this blog? Keep it fairly short, say 100 words or so. You can use either the comments link at the top of this post or the contact form in the “You!” tab on the menu bar.