Sturgis’s Law #10

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #10:

“Consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

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.”

Arbiters of style.

No, that 90 percent figure isn’t based on any survey, much less a scientific study or even systematic observation of my own practice. Good editors and writers are always looking things up. But commas and hyphens seem to provoke an anxiety that needs frequent reassurance even when we really do know our stuff.

Funny thing, I was blogging about commas only last week — and quoting Sturgis’s Law #5. So hyphens seem to be a logical next step.

And yes, it is OK to use “hyphens” and “logical” in the same sentence. If you understand the logic behind hyphenation, you won’t spin yourself into a tizzy whenever dictionaries and style guides disagree.

Which they do. A lot.

Hyphens can do many things, but the two biggies are joining and separating. Hyphens are so clever that they occasionally do both at the same time.

A hyphen can fuse two words capable of standing alone into a compound that incorporates both: I’m a writer-editor. The pond looks blue-green.

It can join a prefix or suffix to a root word: an anti-intellectual movement, a business-like attitude. In the former example, the hyphen is also separating the two vowels. Except in skiing and taxiing and maybe a few other words that I can’t think of at the moment, i‘s rarely occur side by side in English, so it looks pretty weird when they do.

Several common prefixes end in e — re- and pre- come immediately to mind — and when they run up against another vowel, misreadings can happen. I can’t look at reignite without initially seeing reign. Plenty of writers have no problem with reignite, but if an author prefers re-ignite, I have no problem with it.

In some cases the separation is crucial. Consider the difference between coop and co-op.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the style guide I use most often, has a long section on hyphenation. In the 16th edition, which has just been superseded by the 17th, it’s section 7.85. It is very, very useful. Plenty of hyphenation decisions can be, in effect, automated: Always use them in some cases (e.g., second-floor apartment, forty-one); never use them in others (e.g., grandmother, northeast).

In other cases, though, there’s plenty of gray area. CMS’s recommendations rely almost entirely on patterns: adjective + participle, gerund + noun, and so on. It suggests hyphenating most compounds when they occur before a noun — a well-rounded education — but leaving them open after a noun: Her education was well rounded.

What CMS and many copyeditors don’t acknowledge often enough is that the words themselves make a difference, and so does the intended audience. CMS does advise taking “readability” into consideration, but what’s readable and what isn’t depends a lot on context. Some noun + noun compounds are so familiar that inserting a hyphen when they appear before a noun looks like overkill. Yeah, “high school student” could be read to mean a school student on drugs, but when was the last time you saw it used that way?

On the other hand, “running shoe store” could conjure unintentionally hilarious images in enough readers’ minds that “running-shoe store” seems the better option.

CMS recommends that adjectives formed with half- be hyphenated before or after a noun but that nouns so formed be open. OK up to a point, but half sister strikes me as odd because all those half- relationships are words in their own right. Besides, if stepsister is one word, why should half sister be two? This is why “consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

It’s also why I think writers and editors are well within their rights to impose some consistency and logic on hyphenation in a particular work, even if this involves deviating from the recommendations of dictionary or style guide. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) lists policymaker as one word. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) it isn’t listed, which means it’s two words. AHD has both policymaking and policy-makingCMS would probably suggest policymaker for the noun (by analogy with shipbuilder) and policy-making when it precedes a noun. But what if you’ve got people who make policy and people who make decisions in the same paragraph?

With certain prefixes, like pro- and anti-, separating the prefix from the root with a hyphen calls a little more attention to the root. Consider pro-choice and prochoiceanti-choice and antichoice. In this case I’m all for the hyphen, but when an author hyphenates something that I probably wouldn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that s/he’s seeing or hearing a distinction that I don’t.

Most non- words can be safely closed up, but with new or unfamiliar coinages, a hyphen can be helpful. A recent author used non-state actors several times. Fine with me. British English tends to hyphenate more non- words than its American counterpart: NGO is spelled out non-governmental organization, not nongovernmental organization. If a U.S. author wants to do likewise, fine with me.

I’m proud to call myself a HARPy — HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal. When I come across a hyphen that doesn’t follow the “rules” of the guiding dictionary or style guide, I ask, Is it useful? Does it get in the way? Is it consistent with the author’s other preferences? Sometimes I’ll consult CMS, MW, AHD, and the UK English section of the online Oxford Dictionaries. If it passes muster, I’ll enter the spelling in my style sheet so I’ll remember it if it comes up again, and so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious choice, not a mistake.

Wield hyphens with confidence. They’re helpful little buggers, and nothing to be afraid of.