The Lowly Hyphen
I am convinced that the lowly hyphen has been used by orthographic pundits as a means to either 1) confuse writers of English (novelists, journalists, essayists, editors, twitter freaks, or ordinary citizens) or 2) provide a means to perpetuate their jobs (as orthographic pundits, of course). When faced with such dire circumstances as whether to hyphenate or not, I usually turn to the Chicago Manual of Style (hereafter CMOS) of which mine is the 14th edition, where at paragraph 6.32, Compound Words, I am confronted by the following: “Probably nine out of ten spelling questions that arise in writing or editing concern compound words.” Well, duh! “Should it be selfseeking or self-seeking? Is the word spelled taxpayer, tax-payer, or tax payer―closed, hyphenated, or open.”
CMOS then refers us to the next paragraphs, 6.33―35, where we are presented with the following definitions:
- “ An open compound is a combination of separate words that are so closely related as to constitute a single concept. Examples: settlement house, lowest common denominator, stool pigeon,” (not to be confused with pigeon stool).
- “A hyphenated compound is a combination of words joined by one or more hyphens. Examples: kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, ill-favored, love-in-a-mist.” Note that this sentence tells us how to recognize a hyphenated compound but not when or why we should use a hyphen. Shame on you, Chicago Manual of Style!
- “A closed (or solid) compound is a combination of two or more elements, originally separate words, now spelled as one word. Examples: henhouse, typesetting, makeup, notebook.” Note for Spellcheck software editors and/or CMOS editors: My program rejects selfseeking, henhouse and Spellcheck as closed compounds! Furthermore, it accepts all three of the following: taxpayer, tax-payer and tax payer. Ye gads! Can no one be trusted to properly use—or not use—the lowly hyphen?
CMOS further directs us to discussions of permanent or temporary compounds, use of hyphens to eliminate ambiguity, adjectival compounds, and “scores of other rules for spelling compound words, but many are almost useless because of the multitude of exceptions.” Well, thanks a lot, CMOS! Worthless rules? No wonder no one understands how to use hyphens. CMOS finally ends the discussion with, “Should all else fail, the writer or editor is advised to employ the tests, admittedly somewhat subjective, of ambiguity and readability.” (The underscoring is mine.)
I highly recommend that those who write professionally, or with the intention of publishing, to take-your-best-shot at solving your hyphenating problems and then let your editor do what s/he is getting paid for. Don't depend on CMOS or your dictionary to come up with the same answer as your editor. Don't ever become an editor. And one last-word: Don't ever hyphenate your-name.