or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, May 30, 2005

Dash It All

So I'm in the washroom of some place or other this weekend and there's a sign on the wall with the usual "If anything's wrong in here, please let us know", and the sign ends with the word "Thank-you".

You know I'm going to say this is wrong, right? You know I'm going to use this as an illustration of some principle of the English language, right? Good; it means I'm not wasting my time.

English, as I've said before, has a fondness for using one word for various parts of speech without any visible change. (Sometimes there's a change in pronunciation: ruh-CORD is a verb, REC-ord is a noun. But this doesn't show up in print.) However, there's one large class of words that does visibly change, and that's noun or verb phrases. They can become adjectives or adverbs, nouns or verbs, but the rule is that the words must be stapled together; sometimes they're jammed into a single word, but more often they're attached to one another with hyphens.

Here are some examples. There are countless others.

1) "Thank you" is a verb phrase--an entire sentence, really--which is turned into an adjective when hyphenated: "She mailed out her thank-you notes." The easiest way to remember to do this is to assume that anything that modifies a noun and consists of more than one word must be hyphenated. (There are a few exceptions, but they are very few.) Another example: "what the hell", which is unhyphenated as a sentence but hyphenated when it's an adjective ("He went through life with a what-the-hell attitude").

2) "Pick me up" is a verb phrase (again, a sentence) that, hyphenated, becomes a noun: "That drink was a real pick-me-up." ("Thank you" also has this quality if it isn't followed by another noun: "She said her thank-yous".)

3) The noun phrase "teddy bear", hyphenated, becomes an adjective: "He has a teddy-bear quality about him." Among the countless others: "heavy metal", "sugar and spice", "dark horse", "son of a bitch".

4) The phrasal noun "fast track" can be hyphenated into a verb: "We're going to fast-track that proposal." So can phrases such as "strip search" and "buzz cut".

5) Perversely, there are phrasal nouns that look like something else: "straight and narrow" is one such--it's composed of adjectives, but it's a noun. Since it's a noun, it would have to be hyphenated into a single word if it were to be used as an adjective: "He finally got onto the straight and narrow", but "The straight-and-narrow world wasn't for him."

6) And while we're on the subject, adjectival phrases take hyphens in certain contexts but not in others. "Over the top" is a phrasal adjective that has no hyphens when used after the noun it's describing, but when placed before the noun, it must take hyphens: "That movie was completely over the top," but "That's the most over-the-top movie I ever saw." Other examples: "drunk as a skunk", "hot to trot".

These rules are so finely tuned and yet so variable that it takes a practiced eye to make sense of them. What is a learner to make of the fact that "strange but true" takes hyphens or not depending on placement, but "cruel and unusual" never does, no matter where it lies in the sentence?

(P.S. About that title: Yeah, I know a dash isn't the same as a hyphen. I used to be a typesetter: I ought to know. But sometimes thinking up these titles just seems like more trouble than it's worth. I hit my apogee with "Torte Reform" back in March and it's been a long, slow downhill slide from there.)


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