Monday, February 21, 2011

Commas and Hyphens I Know and Love

Collage of green hyphens and red commas
A proofreader I know spends half her time taking out and putting in hyphens. "Locally-made" doesn't need one, but phrases like "fair trade chocolate" or "gluten free brownies" are wrong without one. And then there are the partially correct examples: "8-year old kid" is a favorite of mine. Kind of like an aged whiskey, only it's a child.

I have developed an innate sense of when a hyphen is needed. I think of it as part of being an extremely fluent user of English, and I'm usually happy to explain why one is required in adjective phrases.

But why are those hyphenated compound adjectives needed, really? Is anyone truly unclear about what "sugar free ice cream" means? No one thinks it means ice cream that tastes like sugar and is free. (Now, if we were talking about chocolate free ice cream, it might be more confusing.)

Can't we declare the hyphen requirement unnecessary because of the adjective comma rule? That's the one where we're supposed to put commas after successive adjectives before the noun they equally modify -- as in "big, bright, green pleasure machine." As I've rendered it here, the pleasure machine is equally big, bright and green. (Although I suppose it could be a big, bright-green pleasure machine. Huh.)

If writers were careful to include those commas, my idea could work. No commas? Then it means the first adjective modifies the second. "Gluten free brownie" would suddenly be okay, because if the writer meant it otherwise, s/he would have written "gluten, free brownie."

But if hyphens cause people problems in writing, the adjective series comma causes just as much trouble. I read copy all the time that includes commaless phrases like "shiny red buttons." So I suppose we can't count on that.

Imagine some of the phrases that await our confusion:

  • Long-lost brother vs. long, lost brother
  • Little-known author vs. little, known author
  • Small-time machine politics vs. small time machine politics
  • Heavy-metal detector vs. heavy metal detector (that one is from
And the best one of all:

In college, I volunteered with an anti-sexual assault event called the Rape-Free Zone. (Twenty-four hours of self-defense workshops and feminist consciousness-raising.) Before I joined up, the group was in the habit of using the name without the hyphen. Not kidding.


Michael Leddy said...

I like putting the hyphens in. There are already too many high school students.

Daughter Number Three said...

High school is one of those phrases that I almost think should become one word. Highschool. Looks terrible, I admit.

Linda Myers said...

I laughed out loud at our phrases awaiting confusion! Thanks!

elena said...

Your final example is powerful.