September 22, 2007

Vanishing hyphens

With the appearance of the 6th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary -- see the statement by editor Angus Stevenson on 9/13/07 -- the media have been abuzz (not a-buzz) about the disappearance of about 16,000 hyphens in this dictionary.  This many words that were hyphenated in the previous edition are written either solid (bumblebee, chickpea) or separated/split (fig leaf, pot belly) in this one.  Reactions are, predictably, all over the map: it's about time, ho-hum, the language is going to hell.  The last response seems to have been prompted mostly by OUP's statement that the elimination of hyphens was in part motivated by the practices of e-mailing (that's my usage, and I'm sticking to it) and text messaging, forms of communication widely seen as contributing to the decline of the language.

A few framings of the story in the media:

Small object of grammatical desire (BBC News, 9/20/07)

Hyphens are vanishing.  Blame e-mail.  Sorry, Email. (Wall Street Journal Online,  9/20/07)

Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on (Reuters, 9/21/07)

Hyphen falls victim to the email society (Telegraph, 9/21/07)

and in discussion forums:

Demise of the hyphen (Desktop Publishing Forum)

Bye bye hyphen ( Forums)

Every so often I get e-mail from Language Log readers who want to know what the "right" punctuation (solid, hyphenated, separated) of specific compound words is.  I'm not able to give useful advice on these matters.  I know what my own preferences are -- I'm generally sparing with hyphens, but find that they sometimes work for clarity -- and I know that my practice is sometimes inconsistent, a fact that doesn't particularly bother me.  As I pointed out here a while back, not all inconsistency is worth worrying about -- especially when the conflicting styles of different writers and manuals accustom readers to more than one variant, as is surely the case with the three schemes of punctuation at issue here.  So I'm of the ho-hum school.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 22, 2007 12:09 PM