Sunday, October 07, 2007

The passing of the hyphen

Charles McGrath at the Times on the hyphen's purging from the new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
The issue of proper hyphenation has always been vexing for the Brits, far more than it is for us, and occasioned perhaps the single crankiest article in Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” first published in 1926.

“The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English education,” he began, and about halfway through he threw up his hands and said of the examples he had been citing, “the evidence they afford” is “that common sense is in fact far from common.”

Fowler was in favor of hyphens. They sprinkle his own text like dandruff and, along with his fetish for the ampersand, give it a musty, old-fashioned look. This is why designers hate to see hyphens flecking the page, and indeed they are antique, unnecessary marks in many instances.

But that’s also part of their appeal. They’re records of how the language changes, and in the old days, before the Shorter Oxford got into the sundering business, they indicated a sort of halfway point, a way station in the progress of a new usage. Two terms get linked together — “tiddly-wink,” let’s say, or “cell-phone” — and then over time that little hitch is eroded, worn away by familiarity. In a few years, for example, people will be amused to discover that email used to be e-mail.

1 comment:

  1. And don't forget, what would we do about that darned pet hate (pet-hate?), the fine-tooth comb (fine tooth-comb, not)?