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Watch out for those pesky hyphens. (Editing).

I've always tried to follow the rules regarding the hyphenation of compound modifiers, inserting a hyphen if the modifier appears before the noun and leaving it out if it appears after a linking verb. For example:

* The well-received speech lasted only 20 minutes.

* The speech was well received, in part because it lasted only 20 minutes.

But I never thought much about the reasoning behind that rule--until I read William Safire's On Language column in the March 23 New York Times Magazine. He wrote:

"The idea behind hyphenating a phrase in front of a noun is to let readers see it as a single thought, not as separate words. Writers are following the demand of readers who insist that 'descriptions shouldn't look funny.'

"That's why, in the state-of-the-art grammar being jammed down your throat today, state-of-the-art is hypenated, thereby avoiding the confusing look of 'the art grammar.' You don't have to hyphenate 'grammar that is state of the art.' because the modifying phrase follows the noun....

"The trick in all this is to use a hypen to avoid confusing the reader's eye. Are you planning to speak to a small-businesswomen's conference, touting an end to double taxation, or to a small businesswomen's conference (at which you will sing, 'Thank Heaven for little girls')? Same problem with writing about a little-known man, which without a hyphen, would call to mind Tom Thumb."

Skantily clad

In the same column, Safire also tackled the use of the hyphen between adverbs ending in ly--such as skantily--and adjectives--such as clad. English English calls for a hypen, but American English does not.

"That's because 'Merkin, as we call our version of the language, has a rule (really a convention or style, not a hard-and-fast stricture laid down by some authority) that holds, 'Don't use a hyphen after an adverb ending in ly' Now, not all adverbs end in ly--fast, twice, agog and very are all ly-free adverbs--but most of them, like the sexy scantily, do. Lazy writers locked into adverbial cliches write, correctly happily married, finely tuned, fatally flawed, mortally wounded and easily duped--all without the hyphen; in each case, the second half of the compound is a past participle."

Finally Safire warned against confusing such adverbs with adjectives ending in ly--such as steely-eyed, spindly-legged, gravelly-voiced and pimply-faced.
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Author:Swift, Paul
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Mar 31, 2003
Words:382
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