Friday, September 28, 2007

Vanishing hyphen and National Punctuation Day

Is it a coincidence that the venerable Oxford Dictionary is dumping the hyphen (always a source of confusion for writers) just around the National Punctuation Day in the US?

Last week, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary knocked off hyphens from around 16,000 words. (BBC report)

But the dictionary still hasn't been able to knock out the confusion. Earlier, the doubt was whether a compound word is one word, hyphenated or two words. But still there still no clarity on when is a compound word one word and when two words.

Fig-leaf is now fig leaf and pot-belly is pot belly -- two words; while a few others have fused to become one words, like, pigeon-hole has become pigeonhole and leap-frog has turned into leapfrog. Similarly, ice-cream is now ice cream, but post-modern is postmodern.

Maybe someone with a strong knowledge of English language can throw some light on this.

Shorter OED editor Angus Stevenson doesn't give a clear explanation on why some words have split into two while others have merged into one.

"We only reflect what people in general are reading. We have been tracking this for some time and we've been finding the hyphen is used less and less," he says.

Why people are using the hyphen less? One version doing the rounds is they don't have the time or inclination to reach for the hyphen key while typing.

By the way, around the time the Oxford Dictionary knocked hyphens off, in the US National Punctuation Day was celebrated on September 24.

The official website says, "But what started as a clever idea to remind corporations and professional people of the importance of proper punctuation has turned into an everyday mission to help school children learn the punctuation skills they need to be successful in life."

No doubt punctuations are so important, wrong usage can change the meaning. "My sister, who is in the US, will come tomorrow" implies I have only one sister. But the same sentence without the first comma, could mean I have more than one sister, and it's the one in the US who is coming tomorrow.

But the most celebrated example is this:

An English teacher wrote these words on the whiteboard: "woman without her man is nothing". The teacher then asked the students to punctuate the words correctly.

The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is nothing."

The women wrote: "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."

(My earlier post: Punctuations are important)


  1. Oh! I did not know of this death of hyphen in words. Somehow - may be because of the Americanisation of English by MS word - I was not using the hyphens for a long time, but not consciously. Anyway I would agree with OED that language is what is being in use. Contrast this with some of the Malayalam pundits who quote Sasnskrit to prove that the commonly used words are wrong.

  2. Neat post. Now, it would be hard to get the compound words right for sure.

  3. Was very keen on reading your site after your beautiful comments on Shruti's post (getting her baby to sleep) - as a new dad I found your concern really touching!

    Am not disappointed, this is a really nice site and I'm going to blogroll it...

    Coming to this post.. I think the fellows who made that rule haven't read Linne's book:

    A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

    "Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

    "I'm a panda," he says at the door. "Look it up."

    The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

    "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

    So punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death.

    ~ Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a really fun book by Lynne Truss, and they've given a neat online educational companion on the website as well.