The Hyphen is Dead (Long Live the Hyphen)

By Charles Hood, Antelope Valley College

I’ve been thinking about the ways and whys of teaching punctuation. When it comes to punctuation, one mark can stand in for many others, and so I began looking into one of our least vocalized marks, the hyphen. In this article I would like to explore the following suppositions. Obviously, (1) everybody knows what a hyphen is. Yet it turns out (2), nobody knows what a hyphen is. Meanwhile, (3) science has trouble with hyphens. And in fact, (4) society in general has trouble with hyphens. Yet (5), hyphens in particular and punctuation in general both matter, while (6), teaching punctuation also may mean teaching word processing. This is easily done, once (7) we admit that we already do 8,000 things for free anyway, so why not a few things more. Let me now follow these points to their final, logical conclusion.

1. Everybody knows what a hyphen is.

We use hyphens daily and everybody knows what the symbol looks like and how to use it and what it signifies. Just to take a text close at hand, in his poem “My California,” Lee Herrick says, “Here, an olive votive keeps the sunset lit [while] / the Korean twenty-somethings talk about hyphens” (12). That is, the people cited in the poem wonder if a hyphenated compound like “Korean-American” provides a stable, useful, non-demeaning way to access cultural identity, or does it reduce a person to an easily dismissed (and less-than-whole) sub-category, the so-called “hyphenated American”?

It’s a good question and he’s brave to bring it up. In my paragraph that just ended, I have already used seven hyphens—without even meaning to. More are yet to come in paragraphs that will follow. Hyphens are as normal and typical as a cup of coffee or zipping up your coat on a chilly day. Yet if that’s so, why is it that . . .

2. Nobody knows what a hyphen is.

In my own writing and, hence, in my teaching, I follow the Chicago Manual of Style and other sources in distinguishing between a minus sign, a hyphen, an en dash, an em dash, a 2-em dash, and a 3-em dash. That is, these six horizontal strokes each signal different things, and they cannot be substituted for each other any more than the letters Na (sodium) can be used when you mean the chemical Ni (nickel). So too with hyphens and dashes and the rest; they look almost alike but are in fact separate. Should I bother with this anymore? I seem to be alone in caring. Many of my colleagues don’t bother making a distinction, and maybe English has moved past this kind of punctuation (and, in fact, past most punctuation altogether).

Even The Chicago Manual itself seems to feel guilty about making these kinds of distinctions. Here is what they say to do with certain kinds of compound adjectives. “The en dash can be used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of its elements consists of an open compound or when both elements consist of hyphenated compounds” (332). Give me the Nerd of the Day hat to wear, since I actually know what that means. Never mind the rule being promoted, since their next sentence is the one that betrays social unease. In making that kind of small-scale adjustment to hyphenation, the authors say that “this editorial nicety may go unnoticed by the majority of readers; nonetheless, it is intended to signal a more comprehensive link than a hyphen would.”

It may go unnoticed. Ah-ha, so they admit nobody will see the change or care, yet they want to make this placement anyway, replacing a hyphen with the similar-yet-different en dash. Well, okay, right on, me too then, though what comes to mind is some kind of grand palace of baroque clocks, except it’s long after the zombie apocalypse. The civilized world has fallen into ruin, but inside the forgotten and semi-collapsed clock museum, a haggard group of keepers still winds and sets hundreds of clocks daily—all for a world that no longer remembers how to tell time. Outside, the unwashed hordes wear animal hides and club each other to death, but inside the clock museum, grey-bearded clerics cling to the dead rituals that give their existence meaning and order.

This same source has a lot more just on en dashes, and so among other things, it explains that normally an “abbreviated compound is treated as a single word, so a hyphen, not an en dash, is used in such phrases as ‘US-Canadian relations’ (Chicago’s sense of the en dash does not extend to between)” (333). You do, though, need an en dash to distinguish between campus locations, so that it would be correct to write “the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee” with an en dash, which is to say, with a line weighted midway between hyphen and full dash.

If you’re just trying to learn (and teach) punctuation using a collection of sample texts or literary passages, good luck. English is all over the place on this one. A person who minds geese is a gooseherd, one word, and a goosenecked lamp is one word (well, two words, but the goose part is all one). Yet a Nazi soldier on parade would be said to be marching a goose step (two words), except in some dictionaries when all forms are hyphenated: goose-step. Common weeds in England, the goosefoot clan, are all spelled as one word, of which fig-leafed is one species and nettle-leafed goosefoot is another; the goosetongue (also a plant, also one word) is a kind of sneezewort; schooners have goosewing sails, and yet a species of New Zealand dolphin was described to me in a naturalist’s report as goose-beaked, with a hyphen.

If these points seem to you rather esoteric or inessential, you’re not alone. A quick survey of my colleagues shows some doubt or hesitancy over half the time on usage questions about hyphens. Some of this reflects changing technology, so that the QWERTY keyboard makes the dash-versus-hyphen issue about ten times worse. On the typical computer, there is no dash key easily available, not unless you have a computer keyboard with a row of function keys along the top, and you go into a program like Word and manually reassign an idle “F9” key to be the one that inserts an em dash in the manuscript every time you tap it. (This is fairly easy to do on most “PC”-style keyboards.) On a Mac, one usually creates an em dash with command-key-plus-hyphen. That’s one step too many for most people. With no default em dash key present on a normal keyboard, the hyphen key begins to represent all marks of that shape and approximate duration—if people even remember to insert anything at all. Email doesn’t like dashes, nor do many blog and website templates. As the dash goes away, hyphens become even more degraded and approximate. (Guttenberg himself thought that hyphens were ugly; as Janssen notes, Guttenberg often used a truncated equal sign for his hyphens, and typeset them in the right margin, out past the justified text. I kind of like that: it embellishes margins and makes them feel like Bibles.)

Another reason dashes and hyphens have become muddled is that we don’t need either one when creating words on a page with a machine, or at least not usually. Is this an age thing? If you learned to type on a typewriter, especially a manual one, there was that very physical act of coming to an end of a line, hitting a hyphen key to break a polysyllabic word into two parts, and the satisfying ka-chunk as you swept the carriage back to the other side and dropped down one row. You learned hyphens deeply and well; they were an everyday part of any prose paragraph, and they were kinesthetically wired into your typing, word-shaping brain.

Now, these days, with wrap-around WYSIWYG word processing, the magic computer takes care of almost all line breaks for us, and we only need hyphens when making conscious decisions about compound adjectives, and not even always then. Anybody learning to type today has no need to use the hyphen from line to line to line, and so does not learn it, or learns it only superficially.

3. Even science has trouble with hyphens.

Most of us idealize scientists as rational and orderly, men and women who make decisions with the ruthless dispassion of Spock on Star Trek.

I wish that were true.

Here’s an example of passion and contradiction, and the argument rests on the question of what is a hyphen and where does it go.

Background first. Broadly speaking, there are 10,000 species of birds in the world, and, broadly speaking, their common names get listed most often in English. All birds have a Latin binomial (the Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus), but the everyday name, the one in the birdwatching books that people actually use, that one’s usually in English. Fine, but English is a northern hemisphere language—in essence, a language of oak woodlands and peat bogs. Move past “wren,” “jay,” or “woodpecker,” and there are not enough words left over, and so common names for the rest of the world’s birds draw on hyphenated and unhyphenated compounds of existing terms. One can see flowerpeckers in Thailand or oxpeckers in Angola, or there is a very handsome group, the wood-hoopoes, in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya. To take a local example, in the wetlands of North America there’s a nocturnal beast called the Black-crowned Night Heron (note my placement of capital letters, correct per formal ornithological usage). But maybe it should be night-heron, or nightheron, or heron of the night, or maybe something jazzy and Euro-trendy: “Nachtvogel.”

Which spelling is logical and correct? Well, nobody can agree, and so let the flame wars begin. To quote Paul Hess, “The taxonymic hyphen is a waif in the ornithological world” (27). Here is the intro to an article by J. V. Remsen, the Berkeley-trained Curator of Birds at Louisiana State University, a campus that ties with Cornell as the best ornithology grad program in the country. Remsen, speaking in a direct and bold first person, says that because “Gill and Wright have removed hyphens from all previously hyphenated group names, and because the IOC [International Ornithological Committee] World Bird List has published a vigorous critique of the use of hyphens, I herein provide a brief defense of hyphenated group names. I have little intrinsic interest in the subject and never thought that I would have spent several hours on the topic, but as Acting Chair of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s South American Classification Committee and a 25-year member of the AOU’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds, I feel obligated to present a response to counteract the misinformation presented at the IOC World Bird List.”

You may join me in not caring a toot about the names of birds in Suriname, but follow this a bit further to see why it matters. First, here is Dr. Remsen’s summary of the first of the many points of the “anti-hyphen” scientists. He quotes the IOC as saying that their “view is that hyphenated compound names do not, and cannot, reflect phylogenetic relationships accurately, and often misrepresent them. Many cases reflect historical guesses about relationships that were wrong or remain unproven. Compounding the mistakes of pseudotaxonomy are trespasses on English grammar.”

Hyphens are bad science and bad grammar? Remsen refutes this, saying that beyond “the hyperbole, note that a hyphen can reflect phylogeny if it correctly links related taxa.  If that relationship is found incorrect, then the hyphen can be removed. In such cases, the hyphen represents a hypothesis, as does any taxonomic decision, and is subject to review and testing.”

There is more to it than this, but I hope you find a subtle thrill in discovering as I did that punctuation represents a hypothesis. Somebody please tell my dean: hey, my field is as important and useful as are the natural sciences. I won’t drag you through the rest of the Bird Name Wars, but the debate goes deeply into the logic and structure of English grammar, asking if a compound name like “tit-spinetail” does not follow the same pattern of thought as does “director-actor,” that is, a play’s director who also has an acting part in the performance. A defender of generous and unapologetic hyphenation, Remsen points out that the use of “hyphens preemptively reduces some of the ambiguity, as in the above example: a ‘maroon shining parrot’ or ‘little green pigeon’ without the use of upper-case letters presents obvious problems, whereas ‘maroon shining-parrot’ and ‘little green-pigeon’ signals to the non-ornithologist that the hyphenated parts of the name refer to a class of parrots or pigeons.” And just to wrap up our Animal Planet part of the lesson, here’s this clarification from Wikipedia. Fiji’s “shining-parrots have long tails, a languid, crow-like flight, and very bright plumage.” Hmm, sounds good. I think I want one as a pet. Just don’t ask me how to spell the name.

4. Society in general has trouble with hyphens.

To return to an earlier point, even some very smart, well-educated people I work with no longer seem to care about the difference visually between a hyphen and a dash, and the hyphens they use show up as randomly as pre-Tudor vowels. Indeed, the “use of hyphens in the written English language is difficult, widely misunderstood, and often violated” (Gill 649).

Note that he said “written.” Maybe it’s an oral English problem, the disappearing hyphen-dash pair. The differences between a red-hot stock tip, a box of cinnamon Red Hots, and the red, hot, almost-too-tight dress on the redheaded, very much too-hot-to-handle woman in the detective novel is a distinction made on the page, not with the voice. They all sound the same, and so, for most people would get written the same, or in many modern instances, not written at all. Punctuation could be on its way out once we revert to an oral-only phase.

Sources back up my fears on this count. In picking up the dictionary closest to my desk, a 1991 Random House, I find a footnote in the final pages: “It is important not to confuse the hyphen (-) with the dash (—), which is more than twice as long.” I love the irritation of that: it is more than twice as long. The dictionary’s authors nearly wanted to say, “Pay attention you dolt! Can’t you see how different these things are?”

I checked the AP Stylebook, layout handbooks for graphic designers, and a pile of grammar handbooks. Whoa nelly, was there a lack of consistency. Here is what the primary British style guide tells us about when to use hyphens: “In general there is a tendency in modern English to avoid hyphenation for noun compounds: […] airbase rather than air-base and air raid rather than air-raid. There is an additional preference in American English for the form to be one word and in British English…for two: end point […] versus endpoint” (Oxford 391).

That’s not very helpful, is it? The Designer’s Lexicon helps graphic designers build books and websites, and wants them to do so with grace and style. Yet it merely says a hyphen “is a dash used to divide broken words” (163), with cross-references to other discussions internally. To break a word on the syllable is different to my mind than having a broken word (which sounds like it needs some duct tape and a pair of crutches), and of course to conflate the word hyphen with the word dash is to do exactly the sort of mushy, anything-goes punctuating that makes it okay to pair sneakers with a tux or to wear your bikini to church.

Some reference sources are flat out wrong, in that their advice was incorrect in both American and Commonwealth usage. Others I found online were merely random. Taken from a website, I offer this quotation with no further comment. It comes from blogger Dara Mathis. “Confession: I have no idea what [my blog’s title] ‘Reckless Acts of Punctuation’ really means. I made it up and it sounded like a good idea at the time.”

That raises a related complication. If a society uses a glyph in hugely divergent ways, does that mark still exist? After all, if I said “horse” but really meant “cat,” and if my neighbor says a cat-like word, “coot” maybe, but really means zebra, do our shared words still have any solid meaning? British journalist Will Dean: “The poor hyphen. With the news last week that rapper Jay-Z was dropping the hyphen from his name to become simply Jay Z, it becomes the latest diacritical mark to come under sustained pressure from modern usage.” American commentator Katy Steinmetz has seen the same thing happening and, as she reports, Angus Stevenson, the editor for the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “helped chuck 16,000 hyphens when they updated their reference in recent years ‘to make sure the text reflected current usage and had a properly modern feel.’” She adds that though there’s no “absolute count of how many hyphens people are throwing around out there, [Stevenson] says they are far less common than they were decades ago. And he suggests that passing on the dashing may reflect greater informality in the way we speak, ‘with the hyphen being seen as fussy and old-fashioned.’”

Ah, I see. Pack away your hoop skirts and beaver felt hats, because dang-nabbit, punctuation is just too old-fashioned. After all, look at how to spell this word correctly, iPad, or these: DreamWorks and PayPal. Hyphens need not apply.       

5. Yet hyphens matter.

I am doing some particle physics here, and we all know it. As Dennis Phillips says, “The sentences we inhale / leave only a trace” (212). At the subatomic level, light can be a particle and a wave at the same time, and the gap between electrons is miles and miles wide. Yet change the scale and the rules switch back to normal. Anybody remember the Monsanto ride at Disneyland, “Adventure Thru Inner Space”? Crawl back up out of the microscope and at the level of Newtonian physics, reality applies once more. That means we can go back to the original paradox: nobody knows what a hyphen is, and yet, even so (look at this article itself), everybody does—or at least everybody educated does, which is where we as teachers come in.

One reason that punctuation matters is that language always promotes or subverts a social agenda; it is never neutral or without allegiance. A hyphen matters not just with a word pair like Korean-American, but in normalizing or validating actions, too. Linda Lowenthal points out that to spell “breastfeeding” as one word (as is the trend now) and not as a hyphenated junction of two words (as in the bad old days) can help desexualize the act by deemphasizing the fetish word, “breast,” and also to help normalize it, since this simple act of motherhood is no longer being presented as a hybrid or aberrant action.

Style of course is how we usually think of punctuation. In studying an oceanic bird diving and surfacing, poet David Abel wants to expand English wide enough to create a word for the animal’s placement in the natural world, yet he doesn’t want the false walls of commas to break the adjectives into separate slums. Here’s how he lays out his description: “slick-backed crane-necked long-billed orange-beaked diving bird / I’d like to be a cormorant” (22). It’s not a slick, crane-necked, sort-of-brown water bird—there are no commas here—but a pulsing “aliveness” of each word pair sequenced to the next set equally. I think he would prefer a language like Inuit in which nouns can accumulate syllables endlessly, but without that option, David Abel builds an ecological matrix out of hyphens. It’s subtle, but it works.

Punctuation not only clarifies social relations and sends style out to take some salsa lessons, it may even save your soul. Some writers associate style and punctuation with moral virtue. Pico Iyer in “In Praise of the Humble Comma” suggests that a run-on sentence, with “its phrases piling up without division,” is “as unsightly as a sink piled high with dirty dishes” (241). There’s class snobbery at work there, yet secretly, don’t many of us agree? Poor writing somehow reflects poor citizenship, one reason we work so hard to give our students the tools for success. Paul Robinson has an essay titled “The Philosophy of Punctuation” that is now online, though it originally appeared some years ago in The New Republic. Robinson wants no jazzing around: you pick a track and stick to it. Here’s a sample of his astringency:

I start from the proposition that all parentheses and dashes are syntactical defeats. They signify an inability to express one’s ideas sequentially, which, unless you’re James Joyce, is the way the language was meant to be used. Reality may be simultaneous, but expository prose is linear. Parentheses and dashes represent efforts to elude the responsibilities of linearity. They generally betoken stylistic laziness, an unwillingness to spend the time figuring out how to put things in the most logical order.

There is more of his text than just this; he is a talented and persuasive writer, and much of his philippic may have been delivered ironically. Even so, note to self: if I invite Paul Robinson to dinner, don’t let him sit next to Tom Wolfe, T.C. Boyle, or even Toni Morrison. If he does end up by any of these authors, be sure to hide the steak knives.

The plain fact is there is almost no writing (no successful, interesting, “good” writing) that doesn’t need a boatload of punctuation. Look at the books on your shelves, at home and at work. Everything we love centers on punctuation, even Molly’s soliloquy, whose vacation from the rules of punctuation matches the nowhere-everywhereness of her wakeful hour. To repeat Pico Iyer’s example—he is quoting V.S. Naipaul—there is a subtle but essential distinction being made with the tipping point comma in the sentence, “He was a middle-aged man, with glasses” (242).

So what are the problems and how do we solve them?

6. Teaching punctuation may also mean teaching word processing.

Where I think I have erred in my own classes is in not making the transition from theory to practice. I can talk about the em dash, I can show how Joan Didion uses it, I can model it inside my own handouts, and I can do in-class workshops, but I think there’s one step to go.

I have said earlier that we have a problem with most modern word processing programs and QWERTY keyboards, in that there is no default dash key. You can build a dash out of doubled hyphens; you can insert it from a special characters list; and you can use keystroke shortcuts. The thing is, you can only do any or all of these things if you’ve been told how and then rewarded for mastering them. Teaching writing these days may mean teaching visual literacy and computer fluency as well: not just words on the board or words in your lecture, but words as presented on a screen and then translated onto the printed page.

“Hey guys,” I need to remember to say, “I really like you and respect you and want you not to look like doofuses out there, so listen up.”  And I would then demonstrate how the actual typing needs to happen. Here is how to do this and this and this. A surprising number of my students don’t “get” the hanging indent for MLA citation pages, at least not until I show them the simple trick of putting the cursor at the end of the line above the to-be-indented line, and then tabbing over from there. Yes, there are other ways to build a hanging indent on a modern computer platform, but the point is, I need not just to give the formula for how to make a cake, but to show where we keep the ingredients, how to turn on the oven,  what drawer the oven mitts are kept in. No cooking show would last long on television if it didn’t show people actually taking out the knives and doing some cooking.

We assume because most of our students can text so much faster than we can that they know a lot about computers but they may know less than we do about technology, at least some of the time. Although it feels like just yesterday that I learned to type on a typewriter in summer session seventh grade, the fact is, I have been using Microsoft Word now for twenty-five years, which is to say, for longer than a majority of my students even have been alive. If teaching writing means teaching computer skills for free on top of everything else we already now DO, okay then, so be it.

7. We already work for free anyway, so why not do a few things more?

One of the things I like about working in this profession is that, collectively, we are all so deeply optimistic. Our good will seems infinite. Every term I try to fine-tune my assignments, try to think about what went wrong, vowing, “Next time it will be better!” So too with almost everybody I work with, full-time and adjunct alike. Our glass is not only half-full, but each semester, if we just do it a little bit different, it will be full to overflowing—we’re sure of it.

Students can’t spell? I’ll teach them—and if not me, then somebody in the room on either side of mine. If they can’t hear how punctuation works, I’ll do it out loud and with a snappy PowerPoint and in the marginalia of their papers. If they don’t understand the sequences of tricks that Word requires to make the text look like a text, I can help with that too.

So, where are we at? Well, shoot. The hyphen is dead. Nobody knows where it belongs in word pairs or when it can be omitted. Nobody knows how to type a dash or what mark sets off an epigraph. Sad but true, and welcome to modern times. But even so, don’t you just love the sound the clocks make, ticking away inside this wrecked cathedral of a museum? Look how the light slants, coming through the broken panes of stained glass. At the top of the hour, when the whole building chimes in unison, how cool is that?

The hyphen is dead; long live the hyphen.


Works Cited

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Campbell, Alistair. The Designer’s Lexicon. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000. Print.

Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2010. Print.

Christian, Darrell. Associated Press 2011 Stylebook. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Gill, Frank, et alia. “On Hyphens and Phylogeny.” Wilson Journal of Ornithology (2009): 121(3): 649-652. Print.

Herrick, Lee. Gardening Secrets of the Dead. Cincinnati: WordTech, 2012. Print.

Hess, Paul. “News and Notes.” Birding Mar. 2010: 26-29. Print.

Iyer, Pico. Tropical Classical. New York: Knopf, 1997. Print.

Janssen, Frans. “The Rectangle In Typography.” Quaerendo 40.1 (2010): 1-25. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

Lowenthal, Linda. “A Poke In The Eye With A Hyphen.” Copyediting (2009): 2-3. Business Source Complete. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

Mathis, Dara. “Saying Goodbye to My Blog ‘Reckless Acts of Punctuation.’” Dara T. Mathis site, WordPress, 14 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

New Oxford Style Manual. Oxford, Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Phillips, Dennis. Navigation. Los Angeles: Otis Books, 2011. Print.

Remsen, J.V. “Use of Hyphens in Group Names in Birds.” Louisiana State University Museum, n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

Robinson, Paul. “The Philosophy of Punctuation.” University of Chicago Press, 03 Nov. 2002. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

Rudick, Marilynne. “Are Hyphens Obsolete?” E-Write Online, 10 March 2009. Web. 21 Dec. 2013.

“Shining Parrots.” Wikipedia, 14 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

Steinmetz, Katy. “From ‘E-Mail’ To ‘Email’: Dropping Hyphens Like They’re Hot.” Time.Com (2013): 1. Business Source Complete. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

Will, Dean. “A Salute to the Humble Hyphen.” Independent. 22 July 2013: Points of View Reference Center. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.