20 September 2007

The humble hyphen - an endangered species

The BBC website has an interesting article today on the vanishing hyphen. Us pedants who care about these things have long been mourning its decline in use. But only where necessary.

It makes sense, as illustrated in the article, for some hyphenated words to become one word, or two. And who could argue with taking the hyphen out of words such as email? Language is a living entity and we can expect spellings to change through common usage.

No, the problem is when things wot ought to be hyphenated ain't.

The hyphen plays a vital role in compound adjectives, such as a "poor-rate collection" as opposed to a "poor rate collection". It helps us make sense of a sentence and avoid ambiguity.

- I want to resign, said the premier-league footballer.

A simple case of quitting? Not necessarily.

- I want to re-sign, said the premier-league footballer.

Aha! He wants to renew his contract!

In speech, emphasis would have made the meaning clear for the above example. In print, one might be forgiven for assuming one meaning when something completely different was meant.

That tiny black dash may look daft or pointless, but it does have an important role to play in language. Use it, or it will die. And one day, like endangered gorillas or pandas, it will no longer be there at all and we will be mourning its loss, not just for its beauty and the pleasure it gave, but for its role in our linguistic eco-system.

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