Hyphenation hazards

Life's not easy on the subs' desk (as the apostrophe implies, we share it).

A page proof came my way today which had been read by our magazine's webmaster. As well as his webbing skills, the webmaster is a wordsmith of the first water so I was surprised to see he had inserted a hyphen between the words 'well' and 'established' in the phrase "a well-established favourite".

Having checked with JD that he too eschews hyphens between verbs and their adverbs, and being reluctant to gainsay my erudite colleague without ammunition, I checked my Fowler's Modern English Usage (2nd edition) and found: "When the first word of the compound is an adverb no hyphen is ordinarily needed, though one may often be found there." In support of this Fowler's quotes Sir Winston Churchill: "Richly embroidered seems to me two words, and it is terrible to think of linking every adverb to a verb by a hyphen."

Assured of victory JD and I brought this to the attention of the webmaster, who cooly pointed to the Fowler's use of the word 'ordinarily' and pointed out that the prime use of a hyphen is to avoid confusion. He cited the phrase "a little-used car", where the absence of a hyphen would clearly shrink the automobile in question.

We accepted this as a valid exception to the no-hyphen rule and beat a hasty retreat. Belatedly checking JD's 3rd edition Fowler's we discovered that all reference to verb-adverb hyphens, or their absence, had been dropped.

But our challenge had obviously got under webby's skin. Having scanned previous entries in our blog he posed a question: "Does your job title take a hyphen – sub editor or sub-editor?" It seems we've used both forms – JD inserted a hyphen; I didn't. When in doubt, check the OED... where we discovered that we are actually subeditors. Even webby was surprised by this rather ugly word so he checked his Chambers dictionary which gave the same spelling.

The Fowler's section on hyphens opens: "No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description." And on that, at least, the webmaster, JD and I are in full agreement.


garik said...

Beauty, however, is a personal thing. I rather like subeditor, though it's hard to explain why. Maybe a background in German...

I'm also unclear as to what ambiguity is avoided by putting a hyphen between well and established. I can think of a... well... established favourite, and an established favourite that's in pretty good health, but they both seem unlikely-interpretations.

JD said...

I don't think the argument was that the use of a hyphen avoids ambiguity in the case of 'well established favourite', more that it avoids ambiguity in some cases ('little-used car') and therefore should be used in all cases, even those with no possible ambiguity. Not sure I agree with that myself though.