For Hyphen’s Sake!

On the occasion of summer’s early weeks, my suburban hometown has hung an enormous banner above Main Street, touting itself as, quote, “A Bicycle Friendly Community.” Each time I drive by one of these, my editor-homunculus fights an urge to park, shimmy up the pole, and deface the sign with a hyphen—that is, in order to better facilitate “A Bicycle-Friendly Community.”

“A Bicycle Friendly Community” [sic]

Without a hyphen to unify “bicycle-friendly,” the word “bicycle” seems strangely without purpose. To proclaim this “A Friendly Community,” however banal, has perfect grammatical logic. Likewise, “A Bicycle Community” is straightforward, if awkward, but suggests some sort of bicycle commune.

Sitting at a stoplight, reading and rereading the words “A Bicycle Friendly Community,” I tried changing the emphasis, rephrasing them in search of some clarity. Bicycle, friendly community! Or, Bicycle friendly, community! (Even this case would need some editing, re: friendlily.) The “A” remains a syntactic outlaw. By the time the light turns green I’ve lost all thread of sense amid the words.

I noticed a similarly unhyphenated phrase a few days ago at my gym, Planet Fitness (see also: The Lo Down’s hilarious Planet Fatness). Now, I actually really like my gym, and not just because it costs $10 a month. It is the participation trophy of gym experiences—everyone is welcome, and everybody wins! For someone who was once an unwilling child-athlete with thick ankles, this patronizing hug could not be warmer.

Good old PF calls itself a “Judgement Free Zone,” no hyphen. Even though I know what they mean by this, and am genuinely encouraged by it, once again the longer I stare at the words the more they seem to be literally without sense. Noun Adjective Noun. With the inclusion of one little hyphen, my gym becomes truly a “Judgement-Free Zone,” rather than a gratis area for criticism.

Perhaps I’m out of step with this credo even in writing this grammatical appraisal.

I am a frequent critic of poor grammar in signage, I will admit. I take careful and giddy note of jars that ask for Tip’s Please!, or the (actually rather alarming number of) signs reading, with quotation marks, “OPEN 24 HOURS”, suggesting either that the hours are intended ironically or that they have been quoted from another source, possibly the proprietor.

The Dairy on 59th Street.

I relished in my discovery a few weeks ago of an error in the window of Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue: a display presumably intended to read The Diary instead read The Dairy. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, indeed.

But these mistakes are truly glaring, and inescapably apparent to anyone who has worked as a copy editor, or read Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots, & Leaves. Hyphen vigilantism, of which I am certainly guilty, is of a wholly different echelon of Grammar Nazism. (Sidebar: Why must we be Nazis? There would seem to be a wealth of less damning appellations—Grammar Fascists, Grammar Despots, etc. I’m open to suggestions.) This seems an appropriate juncture to admit to using semicolons in my text messages.

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White—fellow Grammar Despots, to be sure—are disappointingly and uncharacteristically silent on the matter of hyphenated adjectives in the indispensable Elements of Style (1959). Far more helpful is The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed., which states almost demurely, “When compound modifiers…precede a noun, hyphenation usually lends clarity” (7.81). I almost feel I should curtsy.

I know hyphenation is not most people’s concern, grumble though I do, and Grammar Jingoists stand alone in its defense. Even so, I know that wherever “earth friendly” or “hand made” products are sold, wherever “late night” or “off peak” train schedules are listed, wherever “high school students” are taught, we will be there. Far-flung and little-known, perhaps, but we are ever-present.

  1. john dodig said:

    great post! unsurprisingly i loved this one.

    when i was looking at the simsbury banner all i could think was “family love michael,” which isn’t an error in hyphenation, but is hilarious nonetheless.

    • Thanks, John! Couldn’t be happier that you’re reading.

      Look at banner, Michael! One of my favs is still “You’re killing me, Buster.”

  2. I mostly do this when I’m reading things online. Being Mexican, I’m not exposed to the English language very much outside of my computer.

  3. I have only just learned this use of hyphens through my “Grammar for Editors” class at UC Berkeley Extension. A degree in Modern Literature and a certificate in teaching ESL, and English grammar still escapes me! My class is very boring and dry, but I’m glad I’m challenging myself and learning these things. I know know the difference between an object complement and a predicate adjective! Exciting stuff 🙂

    • Haha! If only they taught English as a First Language somewhere… my latest crusade is “less” versus “fewer.” It’s a hard-fought battle. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  4. Real talk: this post has incited more than one frantic 3am scan of my posts (“OMG, did I write ‘half human’ instead of ‘half-human’?!) Fortunately I’ve come up clean so far, but it’s excellent motivation 🙂

Read Something, Say Something

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: