A Word, Please

In our society, we entrust certain individuals with immense power based, in large part, on our sincere belief and hope that they’ll act as unifiers, not dividers.

It’s a tall order.

Sure, it’s easy to bring together those already close to each other. But the ability to reach out, across a divide, to join diverse players so they can all work together as one – that’s true leadership.

That’s why, regardless of stripe or creed, we should all seize the opportunity to make full use of the talents of the greatest unifier at our disposal.

I’m speaking, of course, about the hyphen.

The hyphen’s great unifying powers struck me after a friend emailed with a question about suspensive hyphenation. If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t feel bad. Except for professional editors like my friend, most people aren’t.

Suspensive hyphenation comes in handy when you want to say that a business is family-owned and it’s also family-operated, but you don’t want to repeat the word “family.”

“Back when the family-owned and -operated restaurant first opened its doors, a cup of coffee cost 50 cents.”

The hyphen joining “family” with “owned” is doing one of the hyphen’s traditional jobs in a traditional way, connecting two words to make a single compound adjective that describes a third word, in this case, “restaurant.”

The hyphen attached to “operated” doesn’t touch two words. It’s attached to just one, with its other side suspended in mid-air to show it connects to a word elsewhere in the sentence. That’s suspensive hyphenation. When you look at our example sentence without the hyphens, you start to see how useful this trick is.

“Back when the family owned and operated “

Seven words into the unhyphenated version of our sentence, it’s not clear that “owned” and “operated” aren’t working as verbs. The sentence might as well read “Back when the family owned and operated the restaurant, a cup of coffee cost just 50 cents.”

But our original sentence doesn’t intend “owned” and “operated” to work as verbs. Instead, they’re participial modifiers – adjectives derived from verbs, like “painted” in “a painted fence” or “defeated” in “a defeated rival.”

If our sentence had no hyphens, some readers would start off down the wrong path, realizing only when they arrived at the eighth word, “restaurant,” that the true verb of the clause is yet to come.

That’s what hyphens are supposed to do: eliminate potential confusion. A human-eating lobster is very different from a human eating lobster. Suspensive hyphenation is just a way to extend that power to multiple words in the sentence so they can work as one with another term placed farther away.

But it’s not just the first word of a compound that can be shared this way. That is, in “family-owned and -operated,” the two compounds share the first word, “family.” But in compound like “carbon- or silicon-based,” the second half of the compound, “based,” is shared.

This brings us to my editor friend’s question: Where do the hyphens go in: “patients receiving a lenalidomide (Revlimid) or bortezomib (Velcade) based treatment”?

Should the hyphens attach to “lenalidomide” and “bortezomib,” or should you tack them right on to the closing parentheses that follow?

The answer: There is no answer. None of the major style or usage guides discuss how to hyphenate a term with an intervening parenthetical. In my experience, the most logical place to attach a hyphen would be to the closing parenthesis: “a lenalidomide (Revlimid)-based treatment.” But would hyphens in that sentence really aid the reader? I don’t think so.

Hyphen rules say to use them when they make things clearer, which means you can skip them when they don’t. In this case, I’d say they’re more trouble then they’re worth.

Because, like all great unifiers, hyphens know when to get involved and when to just stay away.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

A Word, Please

People often ask me whether, as a copy editor, I’m driven to distraction by errors I see in others’ writing.

The short answer is: not in informal writing. If you write “it’s” in place of “its” or write “then” instead of “than” on an internet message board, I figure you made an error in haste. If you do so repeatedly, I figure it’s your prerogative to be bad at English. For all I know, you could be a brilliant scientist horrified at my ignorance of a giant meteor hurtling toward my house or radioactive marshmallows in my morning cereal.

If I’m not smart about your thing, you don’t have to be smart about mine.

But lately I find myself increasingly irked by little issues in professional publishing. As the irritation becomes more intense, I’m forced to acknowledge why: Lots of bad editing adds up to a direct threat to my own livelihood.

When professional publishers adhere to high editing standards, it reinforces the importance of clean copy. But when their standards slide, editing no longer separates the good outlets from the bad. That is, when Joe Sportsfan says on his Facebook page that the Yankees are better “then” the Red Sox, he’s reinforcing a difference between professional and amateur writing. But if the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal all start getting sloppy about “then” and “than,” they lower the bar for everyone. Every error in professional publishing makes the next one seem a little less awful, and those of us who get paid to catch errant “thens” in place of “thans” are suddenly worth a lot less.

The day’s not far off when computers can do my job better and cheaper than I can. But until that day, I’ll be appalled at every little sign that my stock’s on the decline and heartened by signs that editing standards still matter.

For example, fresh on the heels of not one but two columns I wrote mentioning misused “whom,” I ran into yet another “whom” error.

“You gave us a list of names of our associates whom you claim betrayed us,” a character says in the novel “Assumed Identity.”

Granted, the error is in dialogue, so the author could claim that the mistake wasn’t his own. But that would be hard to swallow. More likely, the author simply didn’t know that when the object of “claim” isn’t a pronoun but the clause “who betrayed us.” “Whom betrayed us” doesn’t pass the litmus test of swapping out another subject and object pronoun. You claim “they” betrayed us or you claim “them” betrayed us? Clearly, a subject pronoun like “they” or “who” is needed here.

Another mistake I caught recently appeared in some marketing copy I was editing that promoted a concert by a Columbian rock band. The problem: the band is from Colombia, which makes them Colombian, not Columbian.

Then there was an article I was researching about a stationary store. Technically, that was accurate because the store was not on wheels. But because it sells paper products, it should have been written “stationery.”

But despite the mistakes I’ve noticed lately, I’ve also been impressed by some matters that writers – including amateurs – got right. For example, a Facebook friend recently posted a video she billed as a “sneak peek.” The impulse to mimic the form of “sneak” by incorrectly writing “peak” is tough to resist.

I was equally impressed by this sentence in an article I edited: “Create visual interest by painting the back of a bookshelf a complementary color.” Very few people seem to know the difference between “complement,” which is something colors do to each other, and “compliment,” which is something a flatterer does to another person.

As long as people respect the correct ways to use these words, my skills will continue to be valuable – right up until the day I’m replaced by a machine.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.