or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I love and pity the hyphen, perhaps the most useful and yet the most abused punctuation mark in the language. (As I've said before, the hyphen is so critical to spelling and comprehensibility that it almost constitutes a twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet.) It isn't terribly difficult to use correctly: there isn't a rule, or even a comprehensive set of rules, to dictate its use, it's true, though there are some general rules (and other instances which, unfortunately, must be learned almost on a case-by-case basis). But the reward for mastering the hyphen is precision in and control over your writing, and what writer doesn't want that?

When a writer doesn't know how to employ hyphens properly, we end up with sentences like this one, from Salon.com's Broadsheet:

The Newsweek cover story is indefensible because, clearly, its authors know better -- the piece is three-part hysterical what-ifs, one-part counterevidence.

"Three-part" is an adjective (as in Bach's Three-Part Inventions), and so is "one-part". What the writer was trying to write was a pair of noun phrases (a noun modified by an adjective): "three parts" in the first case, "one part" in the second.

The odd thing is that the writer got "what-ifs" right. One of the hyphen's conjuring tricks is to transmute one part of speech into another: "what if" isn't a noun, but hyphenating it converts it into one, which can be pluralized into a word meaning "conjectures". If you can get that right, you ought to be able to handle "three-part" versus "three parts".


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