Using Hyphens For Kick-Ass Wordage

I had three English teachers in High School. One used to call the class retards. One was a decent teacher. The other one hated me because reasons. I’m sure they’d all be pleasantly surprised to know I actually did pay some attention in their classes and picked up quite a few tricks from them. Yes, even from the guy that called us retards. And, no, I’m not kidding about that; he really called us retards on a pretty regular basis.

One of the things that didn’t get covered, though, was dealing with hyphens. It’s possible they all thought it was too advanced a concept, or it’s possible hyphens just weren’t a thing in the mid 80s, but not one of my teachers covered hyphens. We covered the hell out of commas, though.

So, imagine my surprise when I get a book back from a proof-reader and there are all these damned hyphens conjoining things like some kind of grammatical Dr. Moreau. It wasn’t sufficient to say two year old; it had to be two-year-old.

The hyphens had quietly taken over while I wasn’t watching.

Fortunately, hyphens are pretty easy to work with and a little research on the Internet cleared it all up. Sure, there are a lot of rules — this is English, after all — but they’re mostly easy-to-understand rules.

Think back to the idea of nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and all that other stuff you thought you’d never have to worry about again. Nouns are things, verbs are actions. Adjectives describe nouns: awesome, sexy dude or great writer. Adverbs describe verbs: wrote amazingly or punched quickly. Pretty easy, right? Now, look back at that participle phrase post I did a while back and realize you can use multiple words to act as an adjective.

Hyphens allow us to do similar things with other word phrases. Hyphens are like the kids in High School that always seemed popular; they’re joiners. Take that phrase “two year old” from a few paragraphs back. At its face, if you read two year old, you’d probably have a pretty good idea of what someone was writing about, but two-year-old gives us a better visual cue that those words are about a singular thing. But what about “this joint has little town charm”? If I wanted to describe the charm as related to little towns, the phrase could be misconstrued as the joint having a small amount of charm. So, “this joint has little-town charm” would be better.

It’s all about clarity. Remember the cardinal rule: never confuse the reader.

But wait, there’s more!

According to the American Psychological Association, those fun folks that gave us the APA Style Manual, there are five general principles that guide hyphen usage.

  1. If a compound adjective can be misread, use a hyphen
  2. If a temporary compound is used as an adjective before a noun, and the compound can be misread or expresses a single thought, use a hyphen
  3. Most compound adjective hyphen rules only apply when the adjective precedes the modified term
  4. Write most words with prefixes and suffixes as one word
  5. When two or more compound modifiers have a common base, this base is sometimes removed for all but the last modifier. The hyphens, however, are retained.

The first two points have already been covered, but three through five aren’t complicated. Three is an interesting case and it goes further to explore how hyphens are used to reduce potential confusion. Before the modified word, I use a hyphenated compound phrase: I have a ten-year-old son. After the modified word, though, I don’t have to hyphenate: My son is ten years old. The reason has to do with implied clarity in the sentence structure; notably it becomes more obvious what was being modified when the phrase comes later in the sentence.

Four is pretty straightforward: aftereffect and extracurricular are already words, use them. Counter-terrorism is often spelled counterterrorism these days. Since these are already accepted words, there’s no need to hyphenate two words together, although it can sometimes be done.

Five is the oddball and it speaks to my programming nature. In programming, it’s not uncommon to declare multiple variables in a compound form not altogether different from dealing with multiple hyphenated words. Long- and short-term memory is more acceptable than long-term and short-term memory or long and short-term memory. Since we’re discussing two types of memory (long and short) the hyphenated words share the same base. As a result, it’s acceptable to omit the base for the first example (but keep the hyphen) and only report the base for the last example. First-, second-, and third-grade classes will be late today.

In the final analysis, using a hyphen can be a matter of choice. As long as that choice is to make things clearer to the reader. In a way, hyphenation is a lot like the Oxford comma in the way it reduces ambiguity for the reader. Proper hyphenation can mean the difference between working twenty four hour shifts, twenty four-hour shifts, twenty-four hour shifts, or twenty-four-hour shifts.

Got any hyphen tips of your own? Leave ’em in the comments.

Irony Can Be Pretty Ironic Sometimes

In Airplane II, the greatest movie ever made and co-starring one of the greatest actors of all time – William Shatner, Commander Buck Murdock quips: “Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

Makes ya think, right?

Anyway, my son has recently picked up on the word ironic and, like most Americans, seems to think the word refers to unfortunate situations. This is probably due to the influence of Alanis Morissette who probably wonders when idiots like me are finally going to let “Ironic” go. Seriously, it’s been twenty years now.

Contender for 2016 Irony Density award.

Contender for 2016 Irony Density award.

The problem is one of definition. According to Google (who knows all and shares all), irony is defined thusly (bonus for all you writers out there: synonyms!):



The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
  1. ““Don’t go overboard with the gratitude,” he rejoined with heavy irony”
    synonyms: sarcasm, causticity, cynicism, mockery, satire, sardonicism

    “that note of irony in her voice”
    • a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.
      plural noun: ironies
      “the irony is that I thought he could help me”
      synonyms: paradox, incongruity, incongruousness

      “the irony of the situation”
    • a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.
      noun: dramatic irony

An excellent example of irony would be the fact that I pulled this definition straight off a Google search and am writing this in Chrome. Google’s own spell checker thinks sardonicism is spelled wrong (it’s not, I Googled it).

According to Merriam-Webster, a simple definition of irony is this:

  • : the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny

  • : a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected

Most people are not going to use the classical Greek tragedy version of irony, which leaves us, non-ironically enough, with a simple definition: “You get the opposite of what you expected. Hilarity ensues.”. Kind of like right now, when you expected a serious discussion of irony and got this blog post instead.

Key points:

  • Opposite
  • Humor
  • Strangeness

If a statement meets those criteria, it can probably be considered ironic. Does “Like raaaaaaiiiiinnnnn on your wedding day” meet the criteria? I would imagine, unless you’re a goth, rain on your wedding day would be the opposite of what you’d expect, but from the point of view of the wedding party, it’s hardly funny. Even if it was goths, they wouldn’t find it funny because they usually have no sense of humor. From the perspective of an outsider, especially one that doesn’t really like you, rain on your wedding day might qualify as ironic because it’s the exact opposite what was expected and it’s funny as hell when it happens to someone else. It’s like Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold) said in True Lies:

“I mean, if it was just some idiot and not you, you’d be laughing your ass off.”

Next time you want to call something ironic, make sure it meets the criteria: opposite, funny or strange. If it doesn’t, it might just be unfortunate. Or funny.

Which would be kind of ironic.

As usual, The Oatmeal hits the nail on the head