When a new edition of a dictionary is published, you never know what people are going to pick up on as noteworthy. Last week, when the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was officially launched, much of the surrounding publicity had to do with the all the brand-new material: the 2,500 new words and phrases and 1,300 new illustrative quotes. But what’s gotten just as much attention is something that’s missing. The hyphen, that humble piece of connective punctuation, has been removed from about 16,000 compound words appearing in the text of the Shorter. The news has been making the rounds everywhere from the BBC to the Wall Street Journal. “Hyphens are the latest casualty of the internet age,” writes the Sydney Morning Herald. “Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on,” a Reuters headline bleakly reads. A satirical paper even warns of a “hyphen-thief” on the loose. But don’t worry, hyphenophiles: the punctuation lives on, even if it’s entering uncertain terrain in the electronic era.
The hyphen has been with us since at least the time of Gutenberg, and over time certain general rules have developed, though none of the rules are hard and fast. Traditionally, the hyphen joins two words that appear together forming a compound noun or compound adjective. (Hyphenated compound adverbs are also possible, such as absent-mindedly or light-heartedly.) One basic rule of thumb applies for compound adjectives. If the adjective is not followed by the noun it’s modifying, there’s usually no need to hyphenate: “My grandmother is well intentioned.” If the noun follows right after the adjective, then a hyphen is typically needed: “My well-intentioned grandmother sent a lovely gift.” However, that rule doesn’t apply when the first word in the compound adjective is an adverb ending in -ly, like politically incorrect or functionally illiterate.
So far, so good. But what about compound nouns? There the rules are much murkier. As modern English has evolved, some compounds have stayed “open” as two words separated by a space (snow tire, fire hose, water cooler), while many others have become “closed” with no intervening space or hyphen (snowman, fireplace, watermelon). The hyphenated version is very often a way-station (way station? waystation?) between an open compound and a closed compound, as the form becomes more entrenched in written usage (hand writing becomes hand-writing becomes handwriting). But very often there’s variation among open, closed, and hyphenated possibilities. Is it ice cap or icecap? Show-stopper or showstopper? Different dictionaries will give different advice. What the Shorter editors found, with assistance from the Oxford English Corpus, is that there’s an increasing tendency to choose an open or closed form over a hyphenated form. Fig leaf, hobby horse, and water bed stay open, while chickpea, crybaby, and logjam stay closed.
Some compounds are in no danger of losing their hyphens. It’s hard to imagine the standard spelling of mother-in-law changing to mother in law or even more strangely motherinlaw (though there are no doubt some people somewhere who choose to spell it that way). And we seem to like using hyphens to set off certain prefixes like all-, ex-, quasi-, and self-, as in all-encompassing, ex-wife, quasi-legal, and self-esteem. Moreover, when it comes to prefixes, the hyphen is favored when the root word is capitalized (anti-American, pre-Christian) or when two vowels need to be separated (anti-intellectual, pre-eminent). But with prefixes too, there are no straightforward guidelines for when to hyphenate, and some hyphens simply fade over time as a word becomes more common. Yesterday’s post-modern is today’s postmodern.
So what’s behind the vanishing hyphens? As Shorter editor Angus Stevenson explained to Reuters, “People are not confident about using hyphens anymore, they’re not really sure what they are for.” Geoffrey Leech of Lancaster University told the BBC that electronic communication is partially to blame. “When you are sending e-mails [emails?], and you have to type pretty fast, on the whole it’s easier to type without hyphens,” Leech said. “Ordinary people are not very conscious of the fact of whether they are putting hyphens or not.” So it seems that hyphens often get lost in the shuffle as we quickly tap away on our keyboards and keypads. But if you’re worried about the electronic age inducing the extinction of the hyphen, keep in mind that some hyphenation patterns have been changing for centuries. John Keats once wrote, “To-day thou wilt not see him, nor to-morrow.” Those hyphens are long gone, and I doubt anyone misses them. I expect we’ll all keep hyphenating away, even if we do so more and more sparingly.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.