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Richard Nordquist

Say Good-bye to the Hyphen

By October 8, 2007

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The apostrophe, it turns out, is not the only endangered mark of punctuation. Like the firefly and the bumblebee (once "fire-fly" and "bumble-bee"), the hyphen seems to be vanishing from our lives. Or at least from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

In the recently published sixth edition of the two-volume OED, about 16,000 words have been stripped of their hyphens. So "pot-belly" now appears as "pot belly," "leap-frog" as "leapfrog."

"People are not confident about using hyphens anymore," says Oxford editor Angus Stevenson. "They're not really sure what they are for."

This wisp of a punctuation mark, used for over 500 years to mark compound words, has in fact always been variable and unpredictable. In their preface to the 1911 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, editors Henry and Francis Fowler conceded that "after trying hard at an early stage to arrive at some principle that should teach us when to separate, when to hyphen, and when to unite the parts of compound words, we had to abandon the attempt as hopeless, and welter in the prevailing chaos."

According to the current editors of the Concise OED (2005), chaos still prevails:

[T]here are no hard-and-fast rules to determine the use of one-word, two-word, or hyphenated forms . . .. The evidence of modern English indicates a tendency towards avoiding hyphenation in general, showing a preference for "airstream" rather than "air-stream" and for "air raid" rather than "air-raid." There is an additional tendency for the form to be one word in US English and two words in British English.

Indeed, as Charles McGrath noted in yesterday's New York Times, "The issue of proper hyphenation has always been vexing for the Brits, far more than it is for us. In many cases the hyphen is probably an affectation--like wearing spats, say."

In any case, there's no point in blaming dictionary-makers for the hyphen's decline. "We only reflect what people in general are reading," says Angus Stevenson. "We have been tracking this for some time, and we've been finding the hyphen is used less and less. It will probably upset a few people, but the point I would make is that we are only reflecting widespread everyday use. We are not saying it should be dropped completely."

So whether we bid "good-bye" (Oxford English Dictionary) to 16,000 hyphens or "goodbye" (The American Heritage Dictionary), let's keep in mind the advice of The Oxford Guide to Style: "If you take the hyphen seriously, you will surely go mad."

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