Hyphen hell

By Amy Beth Miller

“If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”

–John Benbow

A friend and mentor—also an editor—gave me a tote bag with that quote long ago. Usually hyphens don’t trouble me, but recently they caused me some consternation.

I was editing a speech transcript about NASA for our American Speaker website, when I came across this section:

Solving those mysteries has long been the domain of lab coat wearing scientists and government agencies and universities. And for good reason. It’s really hard sometimes to just grasp the galaxies and the size of it all. The galaxies being born, black holes colliding. We can’t see this with our eyes. It kind of seems like fiction. Hubble’s gorgeous images of distant galaxies are fairy tale like.

A proofreader suggested “lab coat-wearing scientists” and “fairy tale-like.” However, I decided on “lab-coat-wearing scientists” and “fairy-tale-like.”

I found comfort in this guidance from The Chicago Manual of Style: “Although two or more hyphens are standard in such phrases as a matter-of-fact approach or an over-the-counter drug, there is no consensus—nor need there be—on the need for more than one hyphen in longer and less common adjectival compounds. Readability and semantic logic are sometimes judged differently by equally literate writers or editors.”

Of course, I wouldn’t have had a problem if “lab coat” and “fairy tale” were written as single words: “labcoat” and fairytale.”

I was relieved when The Associated Press Stylebook finally made fundraising and fundraiser one word in all cases. Before that I seemed to have a mental block against remembering when they were one word, when they were hyphenated and when they were two words.

I’m still adjusting to a recent AP change, writing email without a hyphen.

What hyphenated compound bothers you?


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