A press release accompanying the recent publication of the updated Oxford Shorter English Dictionary (see link below) announced that 16,000 hyphens had disappeared. This announcement spawned a smattering of witty articles in the English language media and occupied the pundits slightly longer (perhaps four times longer?) than did the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire of some time ago. In the Language Lounge, our reaction to the news of the banished hyphens was slightly more pronounced, but we did manage to absorb the information with only the help of a few doses of smelling salts.

It is an odd thing about English that it has never really made peace with the hyphen. Germans tend to eschew it altogether, smashing words up against each other without warning and giving rise to jumbo-sized hybrids like Weltanschauung and Gotterdammerung. The French, on the other hand, revere the hyphen and even have a high-sounding name for it: trait d'union. They would no more abandon a hyphen than they would prepare a croque-monsieur (that is to say, a toasted ham-and-swiss) in a bain-marie. English, however, struggles with compounds generally and flits about among three possible forms, sometimes never settling on a definitive one. In the trade, we call these three forms the open (e.g., day care), the hyphenated (e.g., brush-off), and the solid (e.g., lamppost). Compounding the compound problem is the fact that the two most influential dialects of English take markedly different approaches to the orthography of compound words.

Speakers of the two dialects that are the battling titans of English in the world today (that would be British English and American English) may be inclined to think that their own variety treats the spelling of compounds more consistently or sensibly than the other dialect, but this is probably not so, since they both tend to make a hash of it. The Oxford press release referred to above does say so, but it is likely that the 16,000 hyphens recently frogmarched into the valley of death got their just deserts mainly from the no-nonsense influence of American English, which has long abandoned the hyphen in places where it wasn't required. From an American point of view, the question would be, why were the hyphens allowed to persist for so long when they didn't have a job to do? Was it not H.W. Fowler himself, the English saint of English usage, who said

"There is, however, one general rule... and that is that the hyphen is not an ornament but an aid to being understood, and should be employed only when it is needed for that purpose."

Oxford dictionaries have of course always taken British English as their standard, but they are not blind to the fact that American English is the dominant dialect in the world today, as well as the dialect most likely to come to the attention of users of the Anglophone Internet; and Oxford does like to sell its dictionaries everywhere. It was thus a sensible step to make this adjustment toward international conformity.

This is not to say, however, that any dictionary makers should rest on their laurels with regard to compounds: compound orthography both within and across English dialects is a minefield; a dog's dinner; a can of worms. There is one general pattern: compounds that have long been spelled solid in American English are still mainly hyphenated or open in British usage, and for the most part in British dictionaries: take, for example, the in-between compass points (e.g., southwest); compounds formed with various affixes (e.g., those beginning with anti-, multi-, non-, and semi-, and those ending with -like); and verbal nouns formed from phrasal verbs (e.g., setup or layoff). This pattern, however, is but an archipelago of consistency floating near continents of chaos. To illustrate: recently we trolled experimentally through the letter M in a handful of dictionaries, both British and American, and found inconsistencies in the lemmatized forms (which we spell all solid here, though dictionaries don't) of masterstroke, milkshake, midair, mindset, mortarboard, motorcar, mousepad, mouthwatering, mudflap, mugshot, and muttonchops. The preferences of the dialects differ so greatly in this respect alone that localizing editors -- those who prepare written English in one dialect for consumption in the other -- could probably clean up nicely if they charged on the basis of compounds put right.

Fowler's dictum aside, we do in the Lounge occasionally derive enjoyment from ornamental hyphens -- those that appear in the novels of Dickens or Austen for example, where we find they can be just as picturesque as a gaslight or a cobblestone street -- but these hyphens are, in effect, set in stone, and the modern writer is well advised to avoid them (or, to illustrate a functional hyphen: the well-advised modern writer avoids them). It does not help that even up-to-the-minute spellcheckers (or is it a spell checkers? That depends on which dictionary you consult) may sometimes insist that we split a solid compound into its components, when our instincts tell us not to. The best approach is to adopt a sensible policy toward the spelling of compounds, which we suggest might incorporate the following points:

  1. Do not obsess about how to spell compounds. Of all orthographic features of English, it is the most inconsistent and least rewarding for study.
  2. For independent writing, follow the spellings in an authoritative, up-to-date dictionary in your English dialect. Why not benefit from the many hours that lexicographers have spent, using top-shelf tools, deciding which form (open, solid, or hyphenated) should receive headword status?
  3. If you are writing for hire, blindly follow the style guide of the institution you are writing for regarding spelling; it will save you time and agony.
  4. If you are writing text that someone else will edit, fret not: isn't that what the editor gets paid for?
  5. If (3) proves completely unsupportable (because the policy is silly or hopelessly inconsistent), or if (4) backfires on you (because an editor respells a form you feel strongly about) rebel with dignity and be prepared to back up your preferred spelling with a welter of evidence, but first ask yourself: is it worth it? (Revisit principle (1), above.)
  6. For words that do not appear in your up-to-date dictionary, the safe course is to choose either an open or hyphenated spelling. If a word is sufficiently established and frequent as a solid compound, dictionary editors would, in principle, have picked up on it and included it as a headword. On the other hand, the overall trend now in English spelling is toward solid compounds, and going that way might make you look way ahead of your time a few years down the road.

The press release doubling as the obituary for the 16,000 is here: http://www.askoxford.com/worldofwords/wordfrom/soed6/?view=uk

Language Log contributors got briefly exercised about the hyphens; an article with some links to other media commentary is here: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004945.html

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday December 1st 2007, 5:39 AM
Comment by: Eduard H.
On the article titled "Compound Fractures". I noticed that computer terms are mostly spelled solid (scored by the number of google hits on different spellings): mousepad, trackball, keyboard, mailbox, filename, screendump, desktop,...
Yrs, Eduard.
Saturday December 1st 2007, 6:19 AM
Comment by: Leslie W.
Excellent article, so I hate to be a nitpicker on a matter -- the spelling of foreign words -- which, while unrelated to the article itself, nonetheless jumped out at me as I read it. I get a little itchy to read foreign words whose accents in their native tongue are disregarded when the word appears in an English-language sentence.

The word in question here is "Gotterdammerung" in the second paragraph, which in its native German is spelled either "Götterdämmerung" (with umlauts) or, equally acceptable, "Goetterdaemmerung" (without). This is important, I think, not only in the immediate instance, but as a general rule: a missing accent can change the meaning of a word, sometimes in ways that can bring notoriety on a writer he never would have contemplated...

Thanks again, as always, for a stimulating and informative article!
Saturday December 1st 2007, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Bosse B.
Thanks Leslie W! AND with computers it's SO easy to add another language/keyboard and have access to all kinds of signs in a (compound) keystroke.
BUT the article is great and great fun! Thanks!
Saturday December 1st 2007, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Kim S.
I really love this article, and I expect it to be a good tie-breaker for our group editing projects. I've decided we need to pick a list of standards that we will all use consistently. As soon as I started to do that, the question of compound adjectives came up. We often see phrases that I would keep open in some circumstances, but would hyphenate if they served as a compound adjectives. The use the example above:

The writer was well intentioned.
The well-intentioned writer is careful about hyphens.

My intention is to include a discussion of this usage in my discussion of compounds.
Saturday December 1st 2007, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Bob K.
Being from Canada, it is interesting to swim in both the English and American ponds and to attempt to keep one's head clear. As Canada has a policy of multi-lingualism, there are groups or societies of French-Canadians, Indo-Canadians, etc. Perhaps I should start an "Un-hyphenated-Canadian" Group calling themselves "Canadians"!

Saturday December 1st 2007, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Judith S.
Refreshing! Liked the article very much, and the comments as well. 'Hello', to Witty-Canadian Bob.
Saturday December 1st 2007, 10:47 PM
Comment by: William S.
I liked your article . You gave short shrift to spellcheckers in Word , Pages, WordPerfect, etc. Your spell checker for this column did not like spellcheckers but spell-checkers was okay.
Sunday December 2nd 2007, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Just deserts?? Are you being punny?
Or perhaps "just desserts" was your intention. Second time this week I've tripped over this one in an otherwise well-written (!) article...
Sunday December 2nd 2007, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Herman B.
You said it...continents of chaos...
Sunday December 2nd 2007, 1:43 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I depend on the meaning I wish to convey usually when deciding to hyphenate or not. Here on the Canadian prairies (thank you Bob!), one could find a well intentioned writer. He or she would be digging a hole in the ground with the intention of finding water. Without the hyphen then, my mind would get into that muddle.

So hyphens can clarify.

What about whole words? Are there others such as co-operate which seem to depend on that hyphen for pronun (not pronoun)ciation?

Sunday December 2nd 2007, 2:52 PM
Comment by: Marc G.
Sorry to lose 16000 of those little guys. We should ill-icit an effort to restore the hy-phen and give up eating just-deserts.
t-x Marco
e-s, Great article
Sunday December 2nd 2007, 3:05 PM
Comment by: Martin J.
Off-topic, really, but to many readers "dog's dinner" will mean overdressed in a cheap or tarty manner (as in "all got up like a dog's dinner" while "dog's breakfast" calls to mind a situation that is all over the place, like a mad woman's knitting - but messier.

As for "just desserts" - isn't that a restaurant choice, rather than what one truly deserves?
Sunday December 2nd 2007, 4:47 PM
Comment by: Herman B.
As a non(-)English speaker. the minor debate about "just deserts"
led me to the discovery of the expression. An added bonus to a fine and interesting article.
Tuesday December 4th 2007, 12:14 AM
Comment by: Peter B.
As an Australian speaker (reader!), I was amused (but not surprised) to find that it is mostly us Aussies who confuse 'just deserts' with 'just desserts.' (See http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html.)Bravo to Martin Johson for correcting the 'correction' of Neil Broomhall (and, Neil, I would have made the same mistake!).
Tuesday December 4th 2007, 12:19 AM
Comment by: Peter B.
Sorry, Martin and Noel..got both of your names wrong. Blame it on the fact that I'm a virgin submitter (or is it submit-er?).
Tuesday December 4th 2007, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Ujwalla D.
I liked the article. Found it interesting
Thursday December 6th 2007, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Jerry M.
Interesting, erudite article, but just another example of experts getting so concerned with details that they overlook the big picture, which is COMMUNICATION. Which spelling is most likely to communicate accurately to the receiver the message the sender intends to convey? In these times when complexities on many fronts overwhelm all of us, can't we make an effort to KEEP IT SIMPLE AND CLEAR?

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