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Published: Monday, 10/22/2007

Hyphen falls prey to changing sensibilities of the Internet Age

ENGLISH is not an easy language to learn. Its grammar, rules, many exceptions to those rules, and hard-to-understand pronunciations are enough to give the learner a big headache.

For many of us, English was the third or fourth language and we suffered humongous headaches while learning it. But once we had climbed the extremely slippery slope and reached a comfortable plateau, the rich linguistic landscape and distant vistas gave us a feeling of freedom and exhilaration.

All those hard-to-master rules, awkward spellings, and equally awkward pronunciations (why are "but" and "put" not pronounced the same?) became part of our vocabulary and common currency. An appropriately placed comma, hyphen, colon, or apostrophe added to the luster and texture of a well-written piece.

The recently published sixth edition of the two-volume abridged Oxford College Dictionary has now dispensed with the time-honored and time-tested hyphen. The OCD has eliminated 16,000 hyphenated words and given them either a new, one-word identity or cleaved them into two words.

By eliminating the tiny hyphen that had for 1,600 years combined nouns and adjectives, they have now de-linked words so that hobby-horse becomes hobby horse and cry-baby has to shed more tears hugging each other as one word. Ditto for log-jam, low-life, chick-pea, and leap-frog. For now though twenty-odd couples would have to remain twenty-odd couples instead of becoming twenty odd couples.

The arbiters of good language at OCD say it is the need of our times. The editor, Angus Stevenson, according to Reuters, said that hyphen's demise is in part because of (graphic) designers' distaste for the ungainly, horizontal bulk between words. He said people are not sure what they are for. He also said that printed writing is very much design-led and people feel that hyphens mess up the look of a nice bit of typography.

Expediency and shortcuts should not be equated with good language. A well-placed hyphen has served the language rather well. Imagine tempering with "swift half-intermitted burst" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan") or "mid-May's eldest child" or "singest of summer in full-throated ease" (John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"). That would make the authors turn over in their ancient graves, the nice bit of computer-generated typography aside.

Languages are living, breathing things. They absorb and adopt from the society around them. Common usage influences the slow and subtle evolution of a language. To hurry such a process is to force the direction that a language must take. Somehow the editors at OCD are, in my not-unbiased opinion, hurrying up the process by endorsing a fad.

Just think of the typesetters of yore who worked with tiny tweezers to pick mirror-image opposites of tiny letters and set them into words and sentences and never dropped the essential accompaniments and garnishes we call hyphens, commas, colons, etc. And now compare them to the present-day graphic designers who might do a great job designing but seem to have developed a distaste or dislike for the lowly hyphen, which they derisively refer to as an ungainly horizontal bulk between words. How did we let the bar go so low?

The Internet has been called the great equalizer. I prefer to call it a sexy and seductive shortcut to faux nirvana that sidesteps good taste, good manners, and good language. The art of conversation and letter writing, thanks to the ease of text messaging and e-mails, is fast disappearing and is being replaced by the truncated and mongrelized abbreviations that while dispensing with spelling and grammar also take away any personal warmth that we have had as part of a polite and civil society.

In 1983, some of the big department stores in England dropped the apostrophe from their name. Harrod's and Barclay's became Harrods and Barclays. In a letter to the Readers' Forum of this paper, I lamented the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe from our language. I predicted that no matter how much liberty big businesses take with the English language, the die-hard speakers of English would not let the innocent and innocuous-looking apostrophe disappear into oblivion.

Instead, the trend has, in the years since, accelerated its eventual demise.

And now the hyphen.

Could the extinction of comma or semicolon be too far away?

In case you did not notice, I used the so-called ungainly horizontal bulk, a hyphen, 29 times in this column.



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