How to Use (Or Not Use) a Hyphen

How to Use (Or Not Use) a Hyphen

Among the many books about punctuation, precious few are devoted to a single mark. There’s “On the Dot,” by the Brothers Humez, which celebrates the period, or full stop; “Semicolon,” a thoughtful treatise by Cecelia Watson; and “Fucking Apostrophes,” a jewel of a book by Simon Griffin. The hyphen, which may not technically qualify as a punctuation mark, because it operates at the level of the word rather than the sentence—it doesn’t make you pause (though it may give you pause)—has inspired not one great book but two: “Meet Mr. Hyphen (And Put Him in His Place),” a classic by Edward N. Teall, published in 1937, and “Hyphen,” by Pardis Mahdavi, which came out in 2021.

Mahdavi, an Iranian-American (hyphen hers), was a dean at Arizona State University when she tackled this project, as part of a series for Bloomsbury Academic called Object Lessons, “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” The invention of the hyphen has been credited to Dionysius Thrax, a Greek grammarian who worked at the Library of Alexandria in the second century B.C. Mahdavi writes, “The elegant, sublinear bow-shaped U-hyphen . . . was used to fuse words and highlight words that belonged together.” Much later, in fifteenth-century Germany, Johannes Gutenberg used hyphens liberally (in their modern form) to justify the columns of heavy Gothic type in his Bible. Gutenberg was born to Friele Gensfleisch (Gooseflesh), a merchant, in Mainz. J. P. Morgan might not have been so keen to get his hands on an edition of the historic work had it been known as the Gensfleisch Bible.

The hyphen continues to serve a dual purpose: it both connects and separates. In justified text, it divides into appropriate syllables a word that lands on a line break, a task that machines have not yet mastered; and it is instrumental in the formation of compounds, where it is famously subject to erosion. Yesteryear’s “ball-point pen” became the “ballpoint,” “wild-flowers” evolved into “wildflowers,” and “teen-age” found acceptance as “teenage” in most outlets (but not in this one).

In modern times, the hyphen has sown controversy. Mahdavi tells the story of how Teddy Roosevelt, in his outrage at losing the Presidency to Woodrow Wilson, in 1912, appealed to Americans’ xenophobia. He was an “anti-hyphenate.” Mahdavi writes, “Referring to the hyphen between the name of an ethnicity and the word ‘American,’ hyphenism and hyphenated Americanism was seen as a potentially fracturing and divisive force in an America on the brink of war.” Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Chinese-Americans were all suspect. In 1915, Teddy Roosevelt made some remarks that formed “a turning point in how the hyphen became demonized both orthographically and politically.” He said, “The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic.” (Victims of anti-hyphenism might be gratified to know that during the pandemic the equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt was removed from in front of the Museum of Natural History.)

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The hyphen underwent an assault from a different corner in 2007, when Angus Stevenson, an editor of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, removed the hyphens from sixteen thousand words. Some words he closed up (“bumblebee”), others he divided in two (“fig leaf”). When people objected, he argued that the general public didn’t understand the rules governing the hyphen and didn’t care enough to learn them. He may also have thought that the hyphens were ugly. Responding in the Times, Charles McGrath, formerly an editor at this magazine, likened them to “flyspecks.” The British are big hyphenators, he noted, perhaps inspired by Shakespeare, a profligate lover of compound words. The New Yorker, as McGrath knew well (he began his editorial career on the magazine’s copydesk), uses all the hyphens all the time, to avoid ambiguity, whether ambiguity is present or not. For instance, a high-school student might enjoy a chocolate-chocolate-mint-chip-ice-cream sundae. The founders relied heavily on Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” and Fowler liked hyphens, although he did wish that when people used them they were guided by common sense. Those who prefer to do without the hyphen, he writes, “can be left to solve their problems for themselves.”

Mahdavi takes her hyphens very seriously. A child of Iranian parents, she grew up in Minnesota, where, in the nineteen-eighties, her family was menaced by bigoted neighbors reacting to the fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. She was at work in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, when anti-Muslim sentiment surged in response to the attack on the Twin Towers. But the moment when it really became personal for Mahdavi, the event that seared the hyphen into her identity, was a lecture at the University of Tehran, in 2007, when she was presenting her research on sexual politics in Iran. “Just as I was too Iranian in America, I was too American in Iran,” she writes. The lecture hall was raided, and Mahdavi describes being put under house arrest and interrogated for so many days that she lost count. Her true crime? “I was a hyphenated feminist activist,” she writes. She was banished from Iran. “It took getting arrested and kicked out of Iran to wrap my limbs around the hyphen,” she writes. “But, once I did, I found the power inside.”

Whereas Mahdavi has chosen to embrace the hyphen, others have rejected it. In 2019, the Associated Press dropped the hyphen from such terms as “German American” and “Chinese American,” gladdening the heart of Henry Fuhrmann, formerly a copy editor for the Los Angeles Times, who had long felt hobbled by the hyphen, believing it made people feel less than American. The New Yorker went along with the dropping of the hyphen in these constructions, on the principle that you call people what they want to be called.

In 2012, while working at a think tank on the Google campus in Mountain View, California, Mahdavi listened in to a group of nerds as they debated whether to get rid of a code that created “nonbreaking hyphens”; for instance, you wouldn’t want to break up “I-80,” setting the “I-” on one line and the “80” on the line below. Some of the Google programmers thought that the code for the nonbreaking hyphen wasn’t worth the trouble; it was unwieldy. In the end, the code was saved, and they toasted the hyphen, “a piece of punctuation that holds more power than a letter, that physically brings things, people, places together.”

Now, some of you are probably wondering about the arrested state of development apparent at The New Yorker in the persistence of the hyphen in the word “teen-age.” It is the most unpopular hyphen we have. Without being able to go back in time and divine the reasons for it, the only explanation I have found is that “teenage,” without a hyphen, is listed in Webster’s Second Unabridged (1934) with a different meaning: “Brushwood used for fences and hedges,” from a variant of “tine,” to enclose. The word’s second syllable is weaker than that of the “age” in “teen-age”—closer to the “ij” sound in “bondage.” “Teenage” is preceded in the dictionary by the adjective “teen,” meaning “within the teens; between thirteen and nineteen; as, boys of teen age.” “Teen-age” is hyphenated. True, Webster’s Second Unabridged has been superseded by (deep breath) the Third Unabridged, as well as by the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh (another breath) Collegiate editions, as well as by Webster’s online, which has dropped the earlier unhyphenated definition entirely. There is something about that hyphen quivering between the ages of thirteen and nineteen that evokes the angst of adolescence, as if to say, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

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