How and why some hyphens on this blog don’t follow the rules

Every student who ever fumed when I refused to give easy answers to questions in class has to be positively chortling over my misfortune right now.

Recently I had to decide what to call a new series of posts that round up and review online materials related to our project of improving your ESL written Legal English. The inaugural post in that new series announced the running title of the series: “#LegalEnglish round-up.” A simple numbering system (#1, #2, #3, and so on) will distinguish posts in the series from each other.

From your perspective, naming that new feature of the blog probably seems fairly easy.

From my perspective, though, naming that new series temporarily drove me up the wall because of one little punctuation mark: the hyphen. Is it round-up or roundup? I knew my preference, but I researched the matter anyway “just to be sure.”

My research quickly showed that there’s no clear answer. One respected online source says that it’s round-up. Another source says that it’s roundup. The U.S. government’s site on “plain language” says that “compound nouns ending in ‘up’ are one word or hyphenated.”

That’s when I heard hundreds of my former writing students laughing at me because the answer to my question—was just more questions:

  • Which version is more consistent with contemporary hyphenation practices in written English?
  • Which hyphenation practices make the most sense?
  • Which version of the noun (round-up or roundup), which hyphenation practice, do I personally prefer?
  • Which version of the noun will be the clearer for my audience on this blog?

Obviously, I chose round-up over roundup after I weighed those questions. You, the writing ESL attorney, deserve to know why I made that choice.

Recent changes to hyphenation in American English

Standard practice for hyphenation in American English has changed, overall demonstrably for the worse, in my adult lifetime.

The grammar and punctuation: Writers in English use hyphens in more than one context. One common use sees hyphens linking two or more words to form an unwieldy adjective that does not normally exist in English. In his typical over-the-top manner, the full-of-himself boss fired everyone who struck him as having a devil-may-care attitude. Another use of hyphens—not as common today in American English as it was just a few decades ago—appears in linking prefixes and suffixes to base words to change the meaning, and often the grammatical parts of speech, of the base words. Liberal, anti-liberal; life, pro-life; one, one-off; do, do-able.

(This post concerns only how to hyphenate prefixes and suffixes. Legal writing in English raises other issues with hyphenation, such as whether to hyphenate common compound nouns when they act as adjectives [due-process violation or due process violation?]. We’ll leave those topics for another post. Note also that I’m broadly defining suffix to include anything added to the end of a base noun.)

We can state a general rule for using hyphens in written English: Use a hyphen to link two or more words or parts of words to show that they are functioning together as a single grammatical unit. Remember, too, that hyphens become unnecessary when readers generally are used to seeing the hyphenated parts of such words functioning together. For example, any need to use a hyphen after the prefix in preview vanished long ago.

But now for matters of style: Grammar covers the underlying structure of, or relationships between, units of words. People often see grammar as a set of rigid right-or-wrong rules, but written English can have more than one grammatically “correct” option for a particular problem. That’s where style comes in. Driving a Porsche or Lamborghini shows “style,” in one sense of the term. For our purposes, though, style refers to the choices or preferences writers make among options in grammar and punctuation that might—or might not—meet accepted standards.

Like anything else involving living languages, hyphenation practices in written English can and do change. I remember, for example, when standard practice generally called for an uncommon or otherwise confusing prefix or suffix to be marked off by a hyphen from the root word that it modifies. In those days, if I moved furniture around to suit my new business’s needs, I re-arranged my furniture to help my start-up. But contemporary practice in American English generally disfavors hyphens. Today I would rearrange my furniture to help my startup—no matter how confusing rearrange might be, especially for ESL readers.

Before, if I wrote about cars produced before the second World War, I wrote about pre-war cars. But even when I was writing promotional materials in the late 1980s for a publisher of books and periodicals about old cars, standard usage was starting to require me to write about prewar cars.

According to the new standard practice, I no longer re-assure you that my dislike of the new hyphenation practice is sound; today I reassure you. I can’t re-assign you to another section of my mini-course on intelligent use of hyphens; I reassign you. If I insist on the old ways, I’m not a non-conformist; I’m a nonconformist. Recently I received an email from a Paris company (yes, this is a true story) about antinoise technology when, only a few years ago, the company would have written to me about anti-noise technology.

What’s wrong with the new practice on hyphens

This new standard practice of disfavoring hyphens for prefixes and suffixes apparently derives from a misguided effort to simplify and speed up English prose. As a general goal, speeding up the English sentence can be a good thing. The problem is that the new omission of hyphens consistently speeds up only the typing of English prose. Often it very clearly does not speed up the reading of the writing at all. Indeed, the new practice often indisputably interferes with clear and easy reading.

You don’t speed up the writing if your changes force readers to slow down more than they would have done before just to discern your meaning. Even after a decade or two of seeing words like prewar, I still stumble over them because, at first, I hear the first four letters as one syllable that rhymes with dew (as in a brand of whisky, Dewar’s). A simple hyphen (pre-war) instantly, totally prevents readers from stumbling over such words.

The reader (this reader, anyway) also still commonly stumbles over words like reassign and reassure. The ea combination obviously often functions as a single vowel unit in English (as in real, read, heard, fear, and so on). Readers therefore can legitimately think that the first four letters of reassign or reassure (reas) are one syllable instead of the writer’s intended two syllables. I also even still stumble over words like nonconformist, often internally “hearing” noncon as a two-syllable unit of one word, when the writer really wants me to read the prefix non as negating a base noun.

My readings in just the past few days have contained this non-exhaustive list of similarly unhyphenated words, all of which clearly are easier to read with the hyphens restored:

semiretired … semi-retired

antisabbaticals … anti-sabbaticals

multiyear … multi-year

multinational … multi-national

multilingual … multi-lingual

dematerializing … de-materializing

antimaterialist … anti-materialist

semiliterate … semi-literate

multistop … multi-stop

multifaceted … multi-faceted

multitasking … multi-tasking

misuse … mis-use (noun or verb)

startup … start-up (noun or adjective)

gungho … gung-ho (adjective)

Why didn’t I follow my own logic and hyphenate unhyphenated in the sentence leading into this list? Because, to my ear and in this instance, the un- prefix is so common, and the full stop between the n and the h is so obvious, that omitting the hyphen causes no confusion. Even as an ESL reader, you have no reasonable choice but to read un- here as a negating prefix. Ergo, we don’t need a hyphen.

I’ve never liked the move to generally disfavor hyphens in American English usage because so many hyphens indisputably promote clearer expression. A change in usage is not an improvement when it causes even mother-tongue readers—even experienced mother-tongue readers like me—to consciously shift their attention just to understand a remarkably simple idea. The change is even harder to justify when a simple hyphenated prefix would immediately make the writer’s meaning unmistakably clear.

I’ve always wondered how ESL readers of English would fare with this new approach to hyphens in written American English. With the German language’s genius for unhyphenated conglomeration, ESL readers whose mother tongue is German might be OK with this change in standard American English. An ESL Italian reader, though, could quite understandably stumble over a word like semiretired by, at first, hearing what she would recognize as an infinitive, even if the infinitive might be nonsense (semire). And ESL readers whose mother tongue is French might have their own problems with English words such as reassure, rearrange, reassign, and antinoise. This last word in particular easily lends itself to a French pronunciation—as it did at first for me—when it appears in correspondence sent from a writer in Paris (“ahn-tee-NWAHS”).

Permitting and encouraging such misreadings cannot be persuasively defended as “improvements” of written English if clear communication is the goal. I therefore feel free to ignore such practices whenever, in my judgment, the incredibly simple step of adding a hyphen will help us to communicate.

Why I chose round-up instead of roundup

I chose round-up instead of roundup, then, for three reasons:

  1. Omitting the hyphen in such instances is not yet set in stone;
  2. Using the hyphen emphasizes that two words that normally function separately are functioning together as one new grammatical unit (a noun); and
  3. I personally prefer the unmistakable clarity that a hyphen lends to such nouns: when I use a hyphen in such instances, I know to a certainty that my writing will not mislead you and other ESL readers to try to see any words besides the ones I intended.

In my post on 10 common usages to avoid in your written Legal English, I vaguely remembered, and restated in my post, an old comment from an outdated edition of the venerable Chicago Manual of Style. A serial comma, I wrote in that post, is never wrong and often essential. A similar rationale applies to hyphens to show prefixes and suffixes in written English like those described in this post: such hyphens are never wrong, and often they’re essential for clear communication.

Using a few more hyphens than normal might mark you as a stick-in-the-mud in the eyes of the restless multitude who just can’t wait to revere every new fad. But the hyphens suggested in this post are not “wrong,” and they’re demonstrably better at promoting clear communication—especially, I think, for readers like you who use English as a second language.

Your first goal as a writer is to induce your readers into the trance of the dream-world created by your words. Whenever your writing itself forces your readers to pause to understand your meaning, even for a split-second, your writing works against you by breaking the trance. Suddenly, your readers are paying more attention to your writing than to your ideas, which is exactly what you don’t want them to do. If adding a simple hyphen prevents such a confused pause, then you should make the stylistic choice to use a simple hyphen.

The important point is to be consistent after you make your choice. I learned that invaluable lesson almost twenty years ago when I worked as a copy-editor (many people today would write copyeditor) for a book publisher in Indianapolis. Like any publisher, we had a “house style,” our own established preferences on various points of grammar and punctuation. For each new book, though, we developed a separate “style sheet” to help us keep each author’s idiosyncrasies consistent over the course of an entire book.

Hyphenate words in your written Legal English as I’ve discussed in this post, and do so consistently, and you will instantly improve your communications in your written Legal English.

What problems with hyphens have you had in your readings or writings in English on legal topics? Let us now by using the “comments” feature here on the blog, by sending me an email, or by starting a discussion thread at the “Advanced ESL Legal English” community on Google+.

#englishforlaw #esllegalenglish #eslattorneys #esllawyers #englishpunctuation #punctuation #legalenglish

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