Man-eating chicken or man eating chicken? Why hyphens ought to matter

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column that dissects English language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 7 Dec 2023, 4:17 PM

A hyphen, as we all know, is a brief horizontal line employed to link two words together or to unite syllables within a word that have been split by the line break in a printed text. It indicates which word belongs to which, and saves readers from wasting time in figuring that out. The term originates from the Greek word “huphen”, which signifies “together”. The ancient Greeks proposed a sublinear hyphen (‿) positioned beneath the words to establish a connection. Modern writing simplified that into -.

Shakespeare, or Shak-speare as some spelled it during his time, stands out as the pre-eminent practitioner of hyphenation, thanks to his prolific creation of novel compound words in English. Among his innovative hyphenated compounds were “sea-change”, “leap-frog”, “bare-faced”, and “fancy-free”. Another prominent literary figure, John Milton, also embraced hyphenation in his writings, employing it in words like “dew-drops”, “man-slaughter” and “eye-sight”. John Donne, too, exhibited a penchant for hyphenated compounds, as seen in expressions like “death-bed” and “passing-bell”, a reminder of his unique ability to connect dissimilar ideas. Many of these terms have become so common that they’ve shed their hyphens over the centuries. There is unquestionably a clear trend indicating that the hyphen is becoming less prominent, even though assertions of its extinction are premature.

And yet the common hyphen is often essential to make sense of a text; its presence or absence can dramatically alter the meaning of a phrase. How would you react if you saw a “man-eating chicken” instead of a “man eating chicken”? An “anti-animal cruelty charity” probably doesn’t adore puppies as much as you might assume an “anti-animal-cruelty charity” would. Someone who has recently acquired a century-old house is indeed a “new home-owner”, and not a “new-home owner”. Individuals who advocate “hate-free speech” are distinctly more liberal than those who “hate free speech”. A “slippery-eel salesman” sells slippery eels, while a “slippery eel salesman” takes your money and slinks away. And, not to forget, a “little-used car” is not necessarily the same as a “little‐used car”.

According to linguist Angus Stevenson, there were 16,000 hyphenation changes in the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Certain compound nouns, such as “ice cream”, “fig leaf”, “hobby horse”, and “water bed”, have been separated into two distinct words. Meanwhile, others like “bumblebee”, “crybaby” and “pigeonhole” have been amalgamated into single words. Shakespeare’s “leap-frog” is often rendered as “leapfrog”, Milton’s “man-slaughter” has lost its hyphen in court, and “dewdrops” aren’t seen as needing a hyphen any more.

The reason, Stevenson suggests, is that people are not confident about using hyphens anymore. Printed writing in advertisements and websites is very much design-led these days, and designers feel that hyphens mess up the look of a nice bit of typography. However, scholars admit that there are places where a hyphen is necessary to avoid ambiguity.

The misplaced hyphen that frequently occurs in newspapers, the narrowness of whose columns often require non-hyphenated words to be printed over two lines and, therefore, hyphenated for clarity, can be an irritant to readers. A prominent London newspaper once published a series of irate letters to its editor expressing strong dislike for the resultant irrational hyphenations. Among the more hilarious hyphenated words from newspapers and online sources were these treasures (some of which were actual mistakes, while others were fabricated): “pronoun-cement”, “brains-canner”, “bed-raggled”, “the-rapist”, “prose-cute”, “surge-on”, “not-ables”, “cart-ridge”, “pa-rent”, “off-end”, “diver-gent”, “gene-rations”, “man-aging”, “past-oral”, “pro-state” and “fat-her”.

Additionally, there was a series of hyphenated words related to the different stages of life: “ad-age”, “plum-age”, “mess-age”, “front-age”, and “pass-age”, with “dot-age” being the culmination. These were akin to “broke-rage” and “stop-page”. “Rampage” lent itself to double hyphenation hilarity. It could be misprinted as either “ram-page” or “ramp-age”.

Thanks to the advancements in computer technology, which have ended the role of type-setters and compositors, modern newspapers and magazines space the words automatically to fit column widths, and so seldom need to hyphenate printed words awkwardly any more. Consequently, situations that used to result in typographical mishaps like “mans-laughter” and legendary errors like “leg-ends” are now almost non-existent. The notorious yet frequently deployed “comical hyphen” that loved hanging out at the end of lines of newspaper print may finally fade into oblivion.

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