Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Hyphenated Writer

I consider it a dedication to my craft that I pulled myself out of bed early last Saturday, shook a screaming toddler off my pant leg, and drove out to Sidney for a 8:30 am conference session called "Grammar Boot Camp". But really, the topic that writers most like to discuss—after moaning about editors/publishers/reviewers and speculating about other authors' advances—is the fine arcana of English grammar and prose style.

And my bleary commute was well worth it, as Frances Peck of the Editors' Association of Canada gave an informative and engaging rundown of the most common grammatical boo-boos she encounters in her work:

  1. Agreement (pronoun-antecedent, subject-verb)
  2. Pronoun Case (esp. the use and misuse of myself)
  3. Dangling modifiers (which she considers the most common blunder)
  4. Commas
  5. And more commas
In the discussion after her talk, someone asked a series of questions that all had to do with hyphenation. Before she answered, Frances cautioned the interrogator with a quote from John Benbow, a former editor of the OED: "If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad." It's a quote I wish I'd heard before, because it could have saved me many stressful debates with fellow magazine editors, as we tried to formulate strict rules for when and when not to hyphenate.

One example from a press release I recently got: "The keynote presenter is a high energy particle theorist." Ah, the possibilities:
  • a high energy-particle theorist (i.e., a physicist gone to pot?)
  • a high-energy particle theorist (i.e., an over-caffeinated scientist?)
  • a high-energy-particle theorist OR high-energy-particle-theorist (more correct perhaps, but starting to look like one of those block-long, throat-stopping German proper nouns)
  • or, as it was, a high energy particle theorist (leave it hyphen-free and trust readers to figure it out from the context)
My own question had to do with em-dashes—long dashes, like these ones—and how they seem to have proliferated (perhaps thanks to quick keys in MS Word) in the writing of nearly every author, good and bad, mine included. They've become the catch-all replacement for nearly every other form of punctuation: commas, semi-colons, colons, even periods and parentheses.

Frances admitted to suffering the same fondness for em-dashes, but told us that after her first draft, she goes back in and removes about 75% of them, especially those that don't convey an abrupt transition or strong emphasis. Good advice.

She also offered a pair of useful online grammatical resources:
I can always tell which of my own students really care about the hard-learned craft of writing (and which simply have airy fantasies of being a capital-W Writer) by how much they care about the comma and other essential grammatical minutiae. And, yes, how seriously they take the hyphen--even if it might drive them mad.

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