or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, October 10, 2005

Set in Stone

I know I do go on about hyphens, and I'm sorry about that, I really am. But people just keep using them incorrectly, which drives me up the wall because they're relatively easy to use and they make writing clearer and more comprehensible. Isn't that really the goal of any writer?

I was reading the October/November 2005 issue of the inimitable Readymade over supper the other night and was flummoxed by this initially indecipherable sentence (it's in the editor's message on page 10):

Previous concoctions included milkshakes made from mortar and pestled M&Ms and toast cooked three ways.

I just stared at it because I literally had no idea what the writer was talking about. They made milkshakes from mortar? Is that like making mud pies? And what did the mortar do to the blender? Didn't it set like concrete? And wasn't their mom mad?

Finally I realized that the milkshakes had been made from M&Ms that had been crushed using a mortar and pestle, and that what the author had in fact meant to say was "mortar-and-pestled M&Ms". Those hyphens are crucial; they make all the difference. They turn a noun phrase into an adjective, and without them, I was led drastically astray, because "mortar" has a number of meanings in English.

The hyphen is more than just another punctuation mark; it's practically the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, and writers need to learn how to treat it with the respect it deserves.


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