A press release accompanying the recent publication of the updated Oxford Shorter English Dictionary (see link below) announced that 16,000 hyphens had disappeared. This announcement spawned a smattering of witty articles in the English language media and occupied the pundits slightly longer (perhaps four times longer?) than did the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire of some time ago. In the Language Lounge, our reaction to the news of the banished hyphens was slightly more pronounced, but we did manage to absorb the information with only the help of a few doses of smelling salts.

It is an odd thing about English that it has never really made peace with the hyphen. Germans tend to eschew it altogether, smashing words up against each other without warning and giving rise to jumbo-sized hybrids like Weltanschauung and Gotterdammerung. The French, on the other hand, revere the hyphen and even have a high-sounding name for it: trait d'union. They would no more abandon a hyphen than they would prepare a croque-monsieur (that is to say, a toasted ham-and-swiss) in a bain-marie. English, however, struggles with compounds generally and flits about among three possible forms, sometimes never settling on a definitive one. In the trade, we call these three forms the open (e.g., day care), the hyphenated (e.g., brush-off), and the solid (e.g., lamppost). Compounding the compound problem is the fact that the two most influential dialects of English take markedly different approaches to the orthography of compound words.

Speakers of the two dialects that are the battling titans of English in the world today (that would be British English and American English) may be inclined to think that their own variety treats the spelling of compounds more consistently or sensibly than the other dialect, but this is probably not so, since they both tend to make a hash of it. The Oxford press release referred to above does say so, but it is likely that the 16,000 hyphens recently frogmarched into the valley of death got their just deserts mainly from the no-nonsense influence of American English, which has long abandoned the hyphen in places where it wasn't required. From an American point of view, the question would be, why were the hyphens allowed to persist for so long when they didn't have a job to do? Was it not H.W. Fowler himself, the English saint of English usage, who said

"There is, however, one general rule... and that is that the hyphen is not an ornament but an aid to being understood, and should be employed only when it is needed for that purpose."

Oxford dictionaries have of course always taken British English as their standard, but they are not blind to the fact that American English is the dominant dialect in the world today, as well as the dialect most likely to come to the attention of users of the Anglophone Internet; and Oxford does like to sell its dictionaries everywhere. It was thus a sensible step to make this adjustment toward international conformity.

This is not to say, however, that any dictionary makers should rest on their laurels with regard to compounds: compound orthography both within and across English dialects is a minefield; a dog's dinner; a can of worms. There is one general pattern: compounds that have long been spelled solid in American English are still mainly hyphenated or open in British usage, and for the most part in British dictionaries: take, for example, the in-between compass points (e.g., southwest); compounds formed with various affixes (e.g., those beginning with anti-, multi-, non-, and semi-, and those ending with -like); and verbal nouns formed from phrasal verbs (e.g., setup or layoff). This pattern, however, is but an archipelago of consistency floating near continents of chaos. To illustrate: recently we trolled experimentally through the letter M in a handful of dictionaries, both British and American, and found inconsistencies in the lemmatized forms (which we spell all solid here, though dictionaries don't) of masterstroke, milkshake, midair, mindset, mortarboard, motorcar, mousepad, mouthwatering, mudflap, mugshot, and muttonchops. The preferences of the dialects differ so greatly in this respect alone that localizing editors -- those who prepare written English in one dialect for consumption in the other -- could probably clean up nicely if they charged on the basis of compounds put right.

Fowler's dictum aside, we do in the Lounge occasionally derive enjoyment from ornamental hyphens -- those that appear in the novels of Dickens or Austen for example, where we find they can be just as picturesque as a gaslight or a cobblestone street -- but these hyphens are, in effect, set in stone, and the modern writer is well advised to avoid them (or, to illustrate a functional hyphen: the well-advised modern writer avoids them). It does not help that even up-to-the-minute spellcheckers (or is it a spell checkers? That depends on which dictionary you consult) may sometimes insist that we split a solid compound into its components, when our instincts tell us not to. The best approach is to adopt a sensible policy toward the spelling of compounds, which we suggest might incorporate the following points:

  1. Do not obsess about how to spell compounds. Of all orthographic features of English, it is the most inconsistent and least rewarding for study.
  2. For independent writing, follow the spellings in an authoritative, up-to-date dictionary in your English dialect. Why not benefit from the many hours that lexicographers have spent, using top-shelf tools, deciding which form (open, solid, or hyphenated) should receive headword status?
  3. If you are writing for hire, blindly follow the style guide of the institution you are writing for regarding spelling; it will save you time and agony.
  4. If you are writing text that someone else will edit, fret not: isn't that what the editor gets paid for?
  5. If (3) proves completely unsupportable (because the policy is silly or hopelessly inconsistent), or if (4) backfires on you (because an editor respells a form you feel strongly about) rebel with dignity and be prepared to back up your preferred spelling with a welter of evidence, but first ask yourself: is it worth it? (Revisit principle (1), above.)
  6. For words that do not appear in your up-to-date dictionary, the safe course is to choose either an open or hyphenated spelling. If a word is sufficiently established and frequent as a solid compound, dictionary editors would, in principle, have picked up on it and included it as a headword. On the other hand, the overall trend now in English spelling is toward solid compounds, and going that way might make you look way ahead of your time a few years down the road.

The press release doubling as the obituary for the 16,000 is here: http://www.askoxford.com/worldofwords/wordfrom/soed6/?view=uk

Language Log contributors got briefly exercised about the hyphens; an article with some links to other media commentary is here: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004945.html