LABELS: COMPOUND MODIFIER, GRAMMAR, hyphenation, hyphens
“Are the hyphens in this sentence correct?” a colleague asked me recently: “The couple moved in to the beautiful 175-luxury apartment-home community just two weeks after it opened.”
Hyphens are often intuitive. People who’ve spent exactly zero minutes of their lives reading about hyphen rules tend to get right terms like “a good-looking car” or “a cloud-filled sky” without even thinking about them.
Other times, hyphens aren’t so clear. That’s especially true for compounds with more than two words, for example when you have “175” and “luxury” and “apartment” and “home” all modifying a single noun: “community.”
Luckily, with some hyphenation basics under your belt, you can make good choices in every situation.
The basic principle: Hyphenate words that work together to modify another word that follows. That is, words that team up to form an adjective, describing a noun. Or words that work together to form an adverb, describing a verb or an adjective.
Compare: “I saw a dog eating lobster” and “I saw a dog-eating lobster.” In the first one, “dog” isn’t part of an adjective. It’s the object of the verb “saw,” working as a plain-old noun. What did you see? A dog, and it was eating lobster.
But in “I saw a dog-eating lobster,” you didn’t see a dog at all. You saw a crustacean. Its tendency to eat canines is merely descriptive.
This is what hyphens do: prevent confusion. They help make it clear which part of a word cluster is the object or subject by sort of sequestering all the other words that could be mistaken for the object or subject.
In the jargon, we say hyphens connect “compound modifiers.” Adjectives and adverbs modify other words, so they’re modifiers, and when you string words together with hyphens, the result is a compound.
Here's my recent column explaining why I used three hyphens to make "175-luxury-apartment-home" a single compound.
LABELS: enormity, GRAMMAR
“While on the glacier, it was impossible not to feel humbled and awe-struck by its enormity.”
“I stood outside the arena amazed by its enormity.”
“When I look up at the night sky I am just overwhelmed by its enormity.”
If you were a student of William Strunk in the early 20th century carefully following the instructions laid out in his classroom guide “The Elements of Style,” you would have had no problem using the word “enormity” to refer to size — as the writers of the passages above did.
But if you read a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” in the late-1950s or later, you would think that it’s a mistake to use “enormity” to mean bigness.
Yet if you open a dictionary today, you’ll see it’s not a mistake at all. What gives?
Well, like a lot of words, “enormity” has gone through significant changes over the years, some stickler-approved, some not.
Team Stickler is best represented by E.B. White, a onetime student of William J. Strunk, who in the late 1950s added about 50 pages to his former professor’s short classroom guide, transforming it into the bestseller that still rakes in the bucks today.
Among the many bits of information White inserted to make Strunk’s classroom instructions sound like universal rules for every English speaker was this: “Enormity. Use only in the sense of ‘monstrous wickedness.’ Misleading, if not wrong, when used to express bigness.”
If you’re looking for the safest, most buttoned-down way to use “enormity,” you can stop reading here. Just stick to the meaning about badness, not bigness, and no one can say you’re wrong. If you want a more thorough understanding of the issue, you can read about it in my recent column.
LABELS: COLON TO INRODUCE QUOTATION, GRAMMAR, quotation marks, QUOTATIONS
Michael: The incident has already been reported.
When you see that sentence, do you think that I’m talking to Michael, or do you think that Michael said that and I’m quoting him? What if we added one more line for context?
Michael: The incident has already been reported.
Timothy: Then, sir, all is lost!
It’s starting to look like dialogue, right? Like the words after the name Michael are not me talking but in fact are Michael’s own words. Naturally, if I added quotation marks, all doubt would be erased.
Michael: “The incident has already been reported.”
But the quote marks would be wrong. For dialogue, according to both the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, from which I lifted this Michael-Timothy dialogue verbatim, you should use only a colon and no quotation marks.
Yet a colon could mean the opposite. Sometimes colons are used to indicate you’re addressing someone directly. You see this most often in correspondence — emails, letters and the like.
Michael: I hope you’re well.
If this were the first line in an email, the reader would know immediately who’s talking. Plus, if you throw in a word before Michael like “dear” or “hey,” you erase all doubt. Dear Michael: I hope you’re well.
It’s a small miracle that this system doesn’t cause more problems. We can usually infer who’s talking from the context. For example, when we see a news headline that says, “Biden: You can’t have the strongest economy in the world with a second-rate infrastructure,” we know that it’s probably not someone at the newspaper speaking directly to Joe Biden but instead a shorthand way of attributing the quote to the president himself. Even if that’s not immediately clear, it usually takes no more than a sentence or two for the reader to understand who’s talking.
It’s a pretty good system, usually. But it didn’t work out so well for Monica Ciardi, a New Jersey mom who went on Facebook to vent about the way two judges handled her child-custody dispute with her ex-husband. Among Ciardi’s many angry posts was this one: “Judge Bogaard and Judge DeMarzo: If you don’t do what I want then you don’t get to see your kids. Hmm.”
Soon after, local police swarmed Ciardi’s house, handcuffed her and put her in jail, where she would spend the next 35 days for “terroristic threats, harassment and retaliation against a public official,” according to the New Jersey Monitor.
Ciardi says she wasn’t speaking to the judges — wasn’t harassing them or threatening them on her 50-follower Facebook account. She was instead paraphrasing the judges’ words and actions as she interpreted them — summing up the jurists’ implicit message. “She got arrested because she forgot quotation marks,” Ciardi’s public defender, Mackenzie Shearer, told the paper.
Yes, quotation marks could have prevented the whole unfortunate incident. But technically you can’t forget a punctuation mark if it was never required in the first place. Here's my recent column explaining the situation.
A while back someone ask me about “login.” Should it be one word or two, she wanted to know. Or, more precisely, she wanted to know where I “stand” on the matter.
While I’m always flattered when someone thinks my opinion is worth a diddle, the truth is that it’s not. So “where I stand” is wherever a good style guide or reference book tells me to stand.
According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “login” is a noun and “log in” is a verb. So, if you're following AP style, you use your login to log in. Piece of cake.
The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t have an entry for "login." And neither Webster’s New World College Dictionary nor Merriam-Webster’s includes a listing for the word. So documents edited in Chicago style should use the two-word "log in" for both the noun and the verb.
The “login” situation is a good guide for other one-word-vs.-two-word conundrums. Often, the noun form is one word and the verb is two words. Take “lineup”/ “line up”: You tell all the players in the lineup to line up on the field. Most style guides and dictionaries agree on this matter.
Here are some stumpers that are easily solved simply by applying the noun-is-one-word formula:
makeup / make up – One word as a noun meaning composition or construction: the patient’s psychological makeup. Also one word as a noun meaning cosmetics (though American Heritage also allows “make up.”) Two words when a verb.
backup / back up – One word as a noun or adjective referring to an accumulation (The sink overflowed because of all the backup) or a form of support (Chief, call for backup). Two words as a verb.
workout / work out – One word as a noun, two as a verb.
pickup / pick up – Whether you're talking about a truck, a UPS man fetching a package you want delivered, or succeeding with a romantic prospect, the noun is one word and the verb two.
giveaway / give away – One word as a noun, two words as a verb.
signoff / sign off – Ditto above. One word as a noun, two as a verb.
leftover / left over - Ditto that ditto. One word as a noun, two as a verb.
And, by the way, nouns can function as adjectives. So if you have a makeup case, a pickup time, a backup plan, a workout routine, or lineup changes, those are all one word.