Mighty Red Pen

September 21, 2007


Filed under: Grammar goddess,Perilous punctuation — mighty red pen @ 12:13 pm

The new edition Shorter Oxford English Dictionary just came out and apparently, thousands of hyphens have leapt to their deaths like tiny lemmings.

This doesn’t surprise MRP, actually. In fact, we just had a discussion at my workplace about whether to update our stylebook from e-mail to email. For a variety of reasons, we opted to keep it e-mail.

The article cites two pretty interesting reasons for why hyphens have fallen out of favor: the simple evolution of language and that hyphens just don’t look as good on the printed page. The OED folks say that they did exhaustive research before concluding that, in some cases, they should ditch the poor hyphens.

This is a perfect example of what I find so interesting about language: rather than being a set of rigidly based rules to which we word nerds should cling unquestioningly and at all costs, it really is organic and adaptive.

My workplace stylebook made allowances for hyphens when not having one would lead to undue ambiguity. For example, recreation versus re-creation. The article gives a really good example, “Twenty-odd people came to the party, he said. Or was it twenty odd people?”

During one update of the stylebook, I remember we had a long conversation about the word coworker because my colleague thought that without a hyphen, people might think the word was actually cow orker.

She was overruled.



  1. So what were the multitudes of lame reasons for keeping e-mail in the stylebook? On the record, I HATE typing e-mail. It’s like continuing to use the word weblog. No one really uses the hyphen in the word email any more, do they? You might as well just make the style standard to be e’mail. Lame. Lame.

    Comment by Frida's Big Gay Dad — September 21, 2007 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

  2. “cow orker” really? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read today. Orker isn’t even a word!

    I agree with FBGD it is lame. However you can set Word Auto-Correct to do the hyphen for you then you never have to type the hyphen in email ever again. Brilliant!

    Comment by Molie — September 21, 2007 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

  3. I won a professional battle to keep the hyphen in co-worker. And, yeah, it was because I thought it looked like “cow.”

    Additional battle won: hyphen preservation for anti-gay, pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-life.

    Comment by Gopher — September 21, 2007 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  4. FBGD, you’re going to have to take it up with Krodamai. For the record, I raised the question and then caved somewhat against my better judgment. Bad, bad MRP.

    Gopher, I’d be interested to hear more about why you feel strongly that those particular words need a hyphen. Why not antigay, progay, prochoice, and prolife?

    Comment by mightyredpen — September 22, 2007 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

  5. E-mail is hyphenated for the same reason as other first-word-abbreviated compounds: atomic bomb/a-bomb, cesarean section/c-section, government man/G-man, treasury bill/T-bill, etc. The hyphen remains in these compounds because the first word has been replace by an initial, so electronic mail = e-mail.

    Comment by gadfly — September 24, 2007 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  6. Before anyone goes “na-na-na-nyah-na” about the omission of the “d” at the end of “replace,” I humbly resubmit it as “replaced.”
    My bad. Also, further e-words: e-commerce, e-text, e-zine, e-survey, etc.

    Comment by gadfly — September 24, 2007 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  7. Don’t worry, Gadfly, this isn’t that kind of grammar blog … no one is going to heckle you for a simple typo (okay, well, MRP isn’t going to, anyway).

    Thanks for your point about first word abbreviated compounds, I saw a reference to that someplace else today, as well. I think your point is well taken, although for some reason it just seems so . . . much . . . easier . . . to let the hyphen on “e-mail” slip into nonexistence, more so than on the other words you mention, where the hyphen seems indispensable.

    Comment by mightyredpen — September 24, 2007 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

  8. I think it’s funny that folks who grouse that it “takes too much time” to use hyphens usually have ample time for emoticons. Also,
    “email” is French for “enamel.”

    Comment by gadfly — September 25, 2007 @ 10:16 am | Reply

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