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Long live the 1,000-year-old hyphen - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Oct 17, 2022

Medieval manuscript: the hyphen was born in the 11th century

Interested in hyphens? No, I thought not. Even so, I shall try to persuade you that the unloved hyphen merits your attention. By Johnny Grimond

Hyphens were created to serve several purposes. The first, in Europe, was to join the two parts of divided words. For centuries no gap separated written words, which were recorded in manuscripts or inscriptions as they were delivered in speech, in an unbroken flow. The place to stop the flow, briefly, was the right-hand margin of the page, which might be at the end of a word or in the middle.

But, by the eighth century, many would-be users of Latin – the learned language of western Christendom – could no longer pick it up by ear, since their own languages had evolved too much (in France) or were entirely unrelated (in England). They had, therefore, to learn the classics from grammars or glossaries, in which words, not phrases, were the basic components, and spaces were found useful to separate them.

In the 11th century, scribes began to join the broken words at the end of lines, employing a short line below the space. Thus the hyphen was born. When, in 1455, Johannes Gutenberg printed a Bible with lines of uniform length, fractured end-of-line words proliferated. His press could not cope with a line below the space, but could manage it in the middle. It has stayed there ever since.

Not to everyone’s delight. Proof-readers have long been wary of words that break ambiguously: ‘recover’, ‘resent’, ‘resort’, ‘predate’, ‘justice’, ‘unionised’, ‘expectoration’ and, notoriously, ‘therapist’. Yet the problems solved by hyphens far outnumber the problems caused.

Take, for example, the phrase ‘many would-be users of Latin’ in the second paragraph above. Remove the hyphen and the sense is utterly changed. The same is true of ‘After finishing-school, Myrtle became a nuclear scientist’ and ‘I saw a man-eating lobster.’

However, if you insert a hyphen, be sure to put it in the right place. Is the ‘high school boy’ perched at the top of a tree, or merely in secondary education?

Just as tricky is a ‘fine tooth-comb’, useful for those who comb their teeth, but not for those seeking a ‘fine-tooth comb’.

A similar problem arises with ‘black cab driver’, ‘no smoking room’ and ‘seventy five year old bores’, which could be ‘75-year-old bores’, ‘70 five-year-old bores’ or ‘75 year-old bores’.

Although such awkwardness is rare, many poorly hyphenated phrases carry a hint of ambiguity that can make the reader pause. ‘Scotland’s longest married couple’, ‘unexplained wealth order’, ‘light drenched landscapes’, ‘virtual Conservative party conference’ and ‘senior figures were to undergo bullying and harassment training’ have all appeared in print recently. Even the endlessly repeated ‘No deal could be better than a bad deal’ gives rise to the thought that a bad Brexit deal was an unsurpassably wonderful prospect, like Granny’s apple pie in ‘No apple pie could be better than my granny’s apple pie.’

Perhaps the commonest cause of confusion, though, is the attempt to yoke together several words with a single hyphen. In phrases such as ‘convent school-educated woman’, ‘pre-World War One rifle’, ‘anti- home rule movement’, the intention is to gather all the adjectival words together, but the hyphen links only two, leaving the others unattached and the reader baffled.

The solution in nearly all these examples is more hyphens in the right places, but people are loath to use them. In 1926,

H W Fowler opened a long essay on hyphens with the observation that ‘The chaos prevailing … regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English education.’ He then cited a dozen examples, one being ‘superfluous hair-remover’ (a hair-remover that no one wants).

In 1951, Sir Ernest Gowers, who had succeeded Fowler as the most influential source of sense about grammar, opened his section on hyphens in ABC of Plain Words with a reference to this durable if unwanted product, noting that, despite his efforts to put matters right, Fowler had admitted that ‘usage is so variable as to be better named caprice’.

And so it remains today. But that is no reason to give up the struggle for a desirable hair-remover.