What's in a Word | All Blogs


Haphazard hyphenation

By Debra Dobbins

The answer to yesterday’s question is the word "cross-eyed."  Peg leg is spelled as two words with no hyphen, and potbelly is spelled as one. Why? Frankly, I’m as confused as everyone else. English has grown up in a most haphazard manner. There are, however, some rules we can follow on hyphenation.

As mentioned yesterday, hyphens should be used to avoid ambiguity. There’s the well-known example of a man-eating shark versus a man eating shark (presumably in a restaurant.)

Hyphens are also used in compound modifiers, such as a sea-green gown or a one-week vacation.

They also appear in compound proper nouns and adjectives. The Associated Press Stylebook gives examples such as Italian-American and Mexican-American, but also notes the lack of hyphens in French Canadian or Latin American.

Large numbers that are spelled out often have hyphens, (e.g. thirty-one, forty-two, etc.) AP’s rule here is to hyphenate to attach a word ending in “y” to another word.

Hyphens are also often used in prefixes, as a headline in today’s sports section illustrates. The Nuggets have once again signed up Arron Afflalo; they have not resigned him in the sense of relinquishing or giving him up. Hence, the proper meaning of the word hangs on an itsy-bitsy piece of punctuation, the hyphen.

Though experts say hyphenated words should be used sparingly, the hyphen is unlikely to ever go away. We therefore must all resign ourselves to learning when to use it and when not.

Photo special to the Sentinel
 

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