Of all the unbelievable things that happened last week (and there were a lot), one really stood out to me as an editor, which leads me to make this statement: If you don’t know the difference between a hyphen and apostrophe, hush up and learn something when a grammarian criticizes you.
The president last Friday, in the midst of dozens (good Lord, so many) of tweets and retweets, posted:
“To show you how dishonest the LameStream Media is, I used the word Liddle’, not Liddle, in discribing Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff. Low ratings @CNN purposely took the hyphen out and said I spelled the word little wrong. A small but never ending situation with CNN!”
Really, do you want to die on the liddle’ hill? Or give Merriam-Webster’s snarky social-media team more material? (Please do that second one. I need entertainment. Always.)
First of all, while “liddle” is a word, it doesn’t mean little or whatever else the president means when he uses it, with or without an apostrophe (not a hyphen). It’s a surname, and the name of a rare genetic disorder (Liddle syndrome, named after Dr. Grant Liddle) that causes high blood pressure and abnormal kidney function, among other things. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m sure the president doesn’t know about that disorder. Don’t know why, but I’m pretty certain.
Second, a hyphen is not an apostrophe, and vice versa. As Merriam-Webster (note the hyphen) tweeted, “For those looking up punctuation early on a Friday morning: A hyphen is a mark – used to divide or to compound words. An apostrophe is a mark ’ used to indicate the omission of letters or figures.”
Others pointed out that “liddle” isn’t missing anything (other than a correct spelling), so it’s a mystery why an apostrophe at the end would be needed. It’s not as if it was “li’l,” which does need an apostrophe.
Third … just buy a dictionary, please, and learn how to spell “describing.” Seriously. I’m getting a headache here.
There are other errors in the tweet above, but I just don’t feel like getting into them at the moment. So sue me. There’s only so much a word nerd should be forced to deal with at one time concerning the current White House resident. That is, if she wishes to retain her grasp on her remaining sanity. That random capitalization thing or the incorrect adjective? Yeah, that will have to wait because someone doesn’t understand basic punctuation.
Hyphens, tiny punctuation that they are, have recently created an outsize uproar among those using The Associated Press Stylebook, as AP first loosened its rules on hyphens in compound modifiers (first quarter touchdown), then walked back that change (first-quarter touchdown). If you think old people in general are set in their ways, you have yet to meet a seasoned copy editor; change does not always come easy.
As I see it, I think AP just confused people by not being quite clear in its guidance, and in using that particular example, because the advice on when to leave hyphens out—“if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen”—is sound.
That’s been my rule for quite a while, though there are a few that are commonly recognized but remain hyphenated (brand-new, for example, as well as “self-” and other such compounds). In essence, if a compound modifier can’t be misconstrued or misinterpreted by the average reader, it’s OK to not use a hyphen. “High school student” is unlikely to be misunderstood, but “two parent homes” might be. Yes, you’ll still be dinged and stared down if you use a hyphen after an -ly adverb (no more newly-formed, people!).
And if you send out grammatically incoherent social-media posts lecturing others on grammar with multiple unhyphenated compound modifiers that should be hyphenated, plus spelling and other errors, you’ll be dragged. A lot. And deserve it.
Some words with prefixes or suffixes still require hyphens if the intended meaning could be mistaken (such as re-create versus recreate, which mean different things), but many don’t need them at all (socioeconomic, multimillion, cardiogram, etc.). Use of hyphens in words like teenager, longtime and lifelong will pinpoint your age a little too accurately, so steer clear unless you want to be labeled an old coot (I’m shooting for “curmudgeon,” personally).
The guiding principle with hyphens, as it is with most editing rules, is enhancing readability and lessening confusion for readers. But I’m sorry, AP, I refuse to leave the hyphen out of first-grade student or grass-roots organization, or use % instead of percent. Nyah. Whatcha gonna do to me? Take away my pica pole?
As for those apostrophes, correct use of them will endear you to many a copy editor. Watch the steam pour out of ears when someone writes “veteran’s” cemetery … unless it’s for one veteran only, it’s incorrect. Form a plural using an apostrophe and you might just make some heads explode (the only exception, I would say, would be if the absence of an apostrophe would indicate another word—A’s when talking about grades or the baseball team, rather than As).
But place that apostrophe where it should be in a possessive—especially a plural possessive—and, oh, you might just get a few marriage proposals. Make room for flowers and candy.
Maybe not the candy. I must inspect it first. No chewy nougat or peanuts for me, thanks.
Words and grammar rules evolve over time, as I’ve noted many times. But some things will always be wrong, especially when it comes to hyphens. Using hyphens as commas or em or en dashes, or even semicolons or colons? Don’t do it. Omit any of the hyphens in 70-year-old? Nope.
Lauren Thurman, who says she has a “passion for appropriate hyphen usage,” wrote on her Critical Mess blog in 2017 of her annoyance with people who eschew hyphens for no good reason. “When you do not hyphenate compound modifiers, two things happen: The first thing is that you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. The second thing is that, sometimes, the meaning of your sentence changes entirely.”
I can’t think of anything that more illustrates the point that correct hyphen usage is essential to understanding the written word than the example I came across in that blog entry: “Yesterday we saw the dragon-slaying Prince” versus “yesterday we saw the dragon slaying Prince.”
Such unnecessary bloodshed for a rock legend, and all because of the lack of a hyphen.
Said Thurman: “Sadly, it is too late to save Prince (RIP Prince), but it is not too late to save the hyphen from falling into ill repute. Simply use hyphens the right way and no one else has to get hurt.”
Preaching to the choir here, but ditto.
As annoying as the latest mess has been (don’t get me started … really … I have a doctor’s appointment next week and I’d like to keep my blood pressure in check), some in the press have been able to find humor in the impeachment drama. Tuesday at the White House, a baby mouse fell out of the ceiling into the lap of an NBC reporter. After so long without official briefings, press members eagerly captured photos and video and tweeted updates on the search for the mouse, who managed to elude its pursuers at last report. And someone had to name it, of course.
The name? Liddle’ Fuzzball.