July and the Hyphen

The English Project has chosen 2015 to look at punctuation marks as a tribute to the Great Punctuator, Aldus Manutius. He died in 1515, five hundred years ago. However, in the history of printing, there is one greater than he - Johannes Gutenberg. He is the man whose printing press launched the modern world. His first book, the first printed book, is the greatest printed book.  The Gutenberg Bible is remarkable for many things, but one particular feature is the way in which Gutenberg replicated on the printed page the appearance of the manuscript page.

The font that he cut himself (he was a goldsmith by training) exactly matched the thick, black lettering of monkish script. His great page size and two-column layout mirrored best manuscript practice with forty-two lines in every column of every full page. It was the custom of the monks to make their right-hand margins as straight as their left-hand margins. The columns were, in the technical term, justified. The practiced hand and eye of the best copyists did that with relative ease, expanding and contracting letters and spaces as they moved towards the end of their lines.

Justification is not at all easy with moveable, metal print. How, then, did Johannes Gutenberg get so fine an effect at the earliest moment of printing? The answer is that he used the hyphen. He used the hyphen perhaps more than any printer since, and he certainly used the hyphen more than any monk before. Something like a hyphen is to be found in Late Greek manuscripts. Curves were placed underneath the spaces between words that writers wanted treated as one. To describe this mark, Late Latin coined ‘hyphen’ from the Greek elements ‘hupo’--‘under’ and ‘hen’--‘one’.

Scripts that did not put spaces between words had no need of hyphens, but even when word spacing began to appear in monkish manuscripts, hyphens did not feature. Monks did not use hyphens to link words, and they did not use them to break words. Gutenberg was the man to do that. Since marks below the print line were not easy to reproduce, Gutenberg inserted a linking bar within the line. The modern hyphen was created.

Gutenberg’s hyphens are what we now call soft hyphens: they appear and disappear as the printer calls for them. Over the centuries, elaborate rules were developed governing the insertion of soft hyphens. Two of the most important rules were that hyphens had to break at syllable points and hyphens must never create a one-letter break. Gutenberg took no notice of syllables and made one-letter breaks whenever needed. That was often. Hyphens were not the only devices that Gutenberg used to justify his lines. He had shorter and longer versions of many letters and shorter and longer versions of spaces. In total, he used over 36,000 special characters, spaces and hyphens to produce his beautifully justified columns. It was a huge additional investment of compositing time. Why did he do it? He wanted his printed book to look as though it were hand written. He wanted to conceal one of the greatest inventions of all time. He was a perfectionist. He was gloriously mad.

There is little more to be said about the soft hyphen; it is the hard hyphen that is of primary concern in the business of modern English punctuation. The hard hyphen (so called because it is not, or is not supposed to be, optional) makes one word out of two words. That is an operation well adapted to a particular characteristic of the English language. French speaks of ‘the key of the gate of the garden’. German compounds ‘the gardengatekey’. English writes the ‘garden-gate key’.

Like a good child, the English hyphen is seen, but it is not heard. To the ear, there is no difference in German and English compound words. That is a reminder that English is a Germanic language despite its enormous overlay of Italic vocabulary. It is also the source of a writerly problem. Unlike the comma, semicolon and full stop, the hard or compound hyphen rarely indicates a pause or a breath. The basic role of the hyphen appears to be simple enough, but the fact that English uses hyphens to do a job that the ear does not hear leads to a common enough problem in English punctuation marks. When to use them?

English has three classes of compound words: closed, open and hyphenated. Since these are eye classes not ear classes, rules have had to be constructed to aid writing. Closed-class compounds include words like bathroom, bedroom, firefly, keyboard, makeup, notebook, redhead, softball, and storeroom. Open-class compounds include words like attorney general, box room, breakfast room, dining room, full moon, half sister, living room, post office, and real estate. Hyphenated compounds include words like daughter-in-law, master-at-arms, over-the-counter, six-pack, and six-year-old.

Why ‘bathroom’ is closed class and ‘box room’ open class is not evident; perhaps, it is a matter of frequency. Everyone has a bathroom; few have a box room. And ‘box room’ is considered a compound word by analogy with ‘bathroom’; otherwise, it might be considered a two-word phrase with one word modifying the other.

Since the language is being guided by the eye not the ear, decisions to close, open or hyphenate are somewhat arbitrary. Practices vary over time, and they vary over space. The British and the Americans do not compound identically. There is general agreement about compounding, but there are no universal rules. Style manualists and dictionary makers in each country decide what is what. Word mavens have opportunities to display their taste, expertise and spite.

As well as linking whole words, hyphens are also used to attach prefixes, but, as a mournful website puts it, there is ‘unfortunately no consistency in this use of the hyphen.’ It cites the following pairs: anti-aircraft/anticlimax; counter-attack/counterproductive; non-addictive/nonconformist, and several more. A rule is given for one-letter prefixes: they take a hyphen. The examples given are e-mail, S-bend, T-Junction, U-turn. But having set a rule, the sad site admits that ‘e-mail’ is regularly written ‘email’. On this matter, Oxford, by way of New Hart’s Rules, says that prefixes are not usually hyphenated, but it adds that ‘anti-intellectual’ is hyphenated because of a vowel clash. Oxford would also have us retain the capital letter after a hyphenated prefix as in ‘anti-Catholic’. Suffixes, not much considered by other authorities, get an Oxford hyphen when letters clash, thus: ‘bell-like’.

Hyphenation, says Oxford, depends upon a word’s role and position in a sentence, but the towel is thrown in with the example of ‘airstream’, ‘air stream’, and ‘air-stream’. All are approved. ‘Air-raid? British English, says Oxford, tends to two words and American English to one word. Perhaps Oxford’s best advice is to say that modern practice is to go lightly on hyphens.

When not to hyphen? Do not, says Oxford, hyphenate capitalized compounds. Write  ‘British Museum staff’. Do not write ‘British-Museum staff’. Also scientific terms are not usually hyphenated, thus ‘liquid crystal display’. However, Oxford compass points get a hyphen, ‘south-east’, and the Oxford stammer is highly hyphenated: ‘P-p-p-lease’. 

There is no dominant university publishing house in New York as there is in Oxford, Chicago and the two Cambridges. However, there is dominant scholarly body in New York - the Modern Languages Association, aka: MLA. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers carries weight with American humanities departments, and it is a bible for their graduate students. It has a suitably cautious, equivocal, over-informative voice. It offers both ‘hard drive’ and ‘hard-drive.’ It tells writers to hyphenate ‘centuries when they are used as adjectives between nouns.’ It gives, as an example, ‘eighteenth-century thought.’

Most advice in most style manuals deals with compound nouns, but ‘eighteenth-century thought’ shows the hyphen as the creator of compound adjectives. The adjectival compound sometimes makes a clear distinction in meaning: ‘a heavy-metal detector’ is not the same as ‘a heavy metal detector’. ‘Twenty-odd people’ as opposed to ‘twenty odd people’ is a favourite of the stylebooks. Those hyphens speak to the ear as well as the eye; they register a slight change in stress.

Oxford alerts writers to the variation in the following: ‘a well-known story’, ‘a story well-known’, ‘the story is well known’. The shift from the hyphenated to the non-hyphenated notes a grammatical change from the adjectival to the verbal use of the word ‘known’. There are, however, compound verbs as well as compound nouns and adjectives. New York tells us to write ‘a machine gun’ but ‘to machine-gun’.  The Americans say that the British are stricter about using hyphens than are the Americans. That was certainly true in the pre-internet age. Today, the British are not as strict as they used to be, and no one is as strict as the strict American

Compounding hyphens are called hard hyphens – hyphens that have to be there, but there are also those Gutenberg end-of-the-line hyphens, the soft hyphens that appear as needed. A revolution as profound as the change from goose quill to metal type has virtually done away with the soft hyphen. Justifying line lengths is called kerning, and the word-processor kerns without the need of hyphens. Some stylebooks continue to give guidelines for the soft-hyphen-dependent typist, but the appearance of Microsoft Word 95 has meant that only the intractable and the insane continued to use the typewriter after 1995.

Compounding or dividing words have been the main functions of the hyphen, but there are other uses. It has long been the practice to put a hyphen between dates, as in ‘William Shakespeare (1564-1616)’. For the dates of the not-yet-dead, the hyphen is followed by a space, as in  ‘Stephen Fry (1957- ). The open entry is disturbingly suggestive as if the recorder’s pen is eager to complete the record.

Ways of representing dates vary greatly around the world. Among Anglophones, the British and the Americans vary day/month/year and month/day/year. The day and the year are usually written in Arabic numerals, but the month is sometimes Arabic, sometimes Roman, sometimes written as a word. The International Standards Organisation (the ISO) believes that dating could and should be improved. It proposes the following 2015-07-06 for what might otherwise be 6 July 2015 or July 6, 2015 or 6.vii.2015 or 6/7/15 and so on. There is merit in the ISO order and its hyphens. EU official documents already use the ISO format; the UK and US governments have yet to fall in line. The ISO date is machine and human readable, and purists link it with the UTC 24-hour-clock notation in which 11.30 pm appears as 23:30:00 or even 233000. People who are excited by these things are excited.

The date hyphen is as much a divider as a link; i.e., as much a dash as a hyphen, and, though style manuals warn against confusing the two, they are often indistinguishable. Unlike hyphens, however, dashes come in two sizes: en-dashes and em-dashes. The difference is important to printers and proofreaders. The en-dash is the length of an ‘n’; the em-dash is the length of an ‘m’. Because they are measures, these dashes are also called en-rules and em-rules. Rule, the more technical term, is favoured by typesetters.

The dash can serve as a hyphen, a comma, a colon or a parenthesis. The British use one dash between two spaces and the Americans use two dashes and no spaces to serve as weak colons. In a matched pair, those dashes serve as weak parentheses. Three dashes followed by a period serve as a ditto in an MLA bibliography. Multiple dashes serve to make a break in a text. The webpage - ‘When Should I Use an Em-Dash, an En-Dash and a Hyphen?’ - goes someway to explaining things.

For people who write by hand, the hyphen-dash can be a powerful aid. It was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite punctuation marks, varying in length, thickness and number as she gave expression to royal emotion in letters to disobedient sons, ungrateful daughters, and thoughtless servants. Emily Dickinson, a queenly republican, used the dash as almost any kind of punctuation mark. Dashing is disliked by stylists as a resort of ‘hasty and incoherent writers’.  Victoria and Dickinson would not even ignore such critics.

There is a dash that is not emotional; it is mathematical. It is the minus sign. In handwriting, it is the same as a hyphen, but, technically, it is longer than the hyphen; it is the length of an em-dash. Indeed, its origins may be cognate with the em-dash. ‘Minus’ is Latin for ‘less’; ‘plus’ is Latin for ‘more’.  Pre-Renaissance mathematicians used the letters ‘m’ and ‘p’ to indicate subtraction and addition. In formulas, a line was put above the letters to indicate that they were contractions. In the late-fourteenth century, ‘m̄’ was reduced to ‘−‘, and ‘p̄’ gave way to ‘+’ (derived from the Latin ‘et’).

It was the Crusaders’ adoption of Arabic numerals that led to the new symbols. They in turn allowed developments in accounting, technology, science and mathematics that were as central to the rebirth of European learning as developments in the humanities, architecture, and the fine arts. The mathematical minus appeared before the Gutenberg hyphen, but they look alike, and alike they carried the new culture into the modern age.

There remain the naming hyphen, the ethnic hyphen and the colonizing hyphen. The French are fond of compounding first names, and the English are fond of compounding last names. The French like to call their children Jean-Pierre, Pierre-August, Jean-Claude, Elizabeth-Claude, and even Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie (the first names of Simone de Beauvoir). The Americans of the American South also like to compound first names of the Mary-Lou and Betty-Sue variety, but, in the Anglophone world, it is last names that are the more compounded. That is done either by way of the Pooter or the feminist hyphen.

The Pooter hyphen makes posh names out of the everyday-Jones kind, thus Armstrong-Jones, Miller-Jones, and the like. The model is the noble practice of keeping the female family name in sight, thus Spencer-Churchill. Like French first names, aristocratic last names can multiply, thus Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce. British double-barrel, let alone quadruple-barrel, names are in decline, but feminist double-barrel names are on the rise. Marriage used to extinguish non-noble maiden names, but today many women, if they do not go so far as to keep their maiden name, are pleased to marry their own name with that of their husbands. Marriage Name Change gives advice on ‘Hyphenating Your Last Name After Marriage’. The order of the names can be an issue; traditionally, the wife’s name precedes the hyphen and the husband’s follows. That is not a solution for same-sex marriages, and Marriage Name Change has suggestions for gay hyphenating.

The ethnic hyphen is closely allied to the colonizing hyphen. In America, especially, people like to add an ethnic identity to their national identity to produce descriptors such as Italian-American, Irish-American, German-American. So common are these that people so labelling themselves have come to be called ‘hyphenates’. Less common are the forms Anglo-American and Franco-American, both of which recall an older way of compounding ethnicities. English-American and French-American might be more up-to-date, but they are rarely used.

In the 1970, using the model of ‘Anglo-American’, Black Americans began to call themselves ‘Afro-Americans’. That term proved unsatisfactory on two grounds. First, it was argued that ‘Afro’ was a haircut. Second, it was argued that the hyphen was a symbol of colonization. In the 1990s, the term ‘African American’ became current. President Barack Obama is often called an African American though he is perhaps better called a Kenyan-American. Or should that be a Kenyan American?  


Next Month’s Punctuation Mark: In August, the English Project will tell the story of the Ellipsis.




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