Bhopal: Let’s Keep Away From “Hyphen-Thief Gangs”

Bhopal: Let’s Keep Away From “Hyphen-Thief Gangs”

Hyphens are regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may – HW Fowler, The King’s English

Arup Chakraborty Updated: Saturday, December 02, 2023, 10:47 PM IST
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Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh): The English language is in want of firm rules to standardise the use of hyphens. This is the reason why the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has removed hyphens from 16,000 words, but let us keep away from the “hyphen-thief gangs,” and remember what HW Fowler advised us to do. About using hyphens, Theodore Bernstein, consulting editor of the New York Times, says, “A perplexing corner of the anarchic field is exemplified by the word tax-payer, which all dictionaries agree is one word.” If we talk about citizens who pay an income tax.

Can they be called income taxpayers? Likewise, “businessman” is one word, but how can we call people who are engaged in small businesses? Are they small businessmen? In each case, however, the concrete word would be: income-tax payer and small-business man. Let us see how a hyphen at a wrong place confuses the reader: The ex-city magistrate was present at the function. Even if the word “ex” is changed to former, there will not be any change in the meaning – former city magistrate. Who is former “the city” or “the magistrate?” Or should we write ex-city-magistrate? Because there is no rule for hyphenation, we should depend on our common sense. For this reason, many editors say, “If you know how to use hyphens, you know how to write correct English.” The role of the hyphen is to create a compound noun or verb or an adverb to add significance to a phrase. For example, “set up,” which, when used separately, means “to form,” but when it is used together or with a hyphen, its meaning changes, then it becomes a noun. So “setup” or “set-up” means formation. Another word is “outcome.” 

It is a combination of an adverb “out” and “come” verb. The meaning is “outcome” or “result.” We, Indians, can appreciate such words in a better way than a European may do, because we have Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi or many other native languages which teach us Sandhi (liaison). Without understanding the rules of Sandhi, it is difficult to understand Sanskrit. The Indian languages have, however, many rules for creating compound words. Even the French language and German language have certain rules for liaison.

Though liaison is in vogue in the English language, there are not many rules for it. This is the reason why the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has removed hyphens from 16,000 words. Despite this, certain words should be hyphenated, like son-in-law, brother-in-law, law-makers, brand-new material etc. So it is clear that a compound qualifier needs hyphenation. The British do not easily accept hyphenated words unless such phrases justify certain reasons. American English is readier to accept compound words than British English is to do that. “Week-end” lost its hyphen in America in the 1950s, but it was in vogue in Britain until the 1960s (and remains in use in the French language of anglicism).

The Manual of the Oxford University Press says, “If you take hyphens seriously, you will go mad.” The practice of hyphenation varies. Maddening they may be, but a writer has to use hyphens, though with a caution. Recently there was a headline in a national daily, “Students get first hand job experience.” Without a hyphen between “first and hand” it is amusingly ambiguous and utterly wrong. One may know something first hand, but it is “first-hand experience or knowledge.” The British English uses hyphens as pronunciation aids – in most cases to separate repeated vowels. For example, pre-empt, re-examine, re-issue and to join some prefixes to nouns, like pseudo-science and adjectives, like half-afraid, hand-built, hand-made etc. Ambiguity without hyphens A crime reporter of a national daily once wrote:

The old man lost his “walking stick.” When the News Editor saw it, he came out of his cabin and began to laugh. He told the reporter concerned, “If a stick begins to walk, the roads will be empty.” He then explained to the reporter there should be a hyphen between walking and stick – walking-stick. Else, it will be ambiguous. Because it was raining heavily, the woman “recovered” herself with an umbrella. She did not “recover herself,” but she “re-covered herself.”  

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