In a new column on language and grammar, Sonal Shah casts a careful eye over the correct usage of the humble hyphen
When it comes to grammar and punctuation, the English language is more lenient than many others; however, there are certain contexts where it is worth exercising meticulousness. The evolving nature of English and its readiness in embracing numerous influences make it the most vocabulary-rich language on the planet, and afford a certain level of leniency in its application. This can contribute to confusion and unintentional misuse of language; often nothing serious, but the occasional faux pas could be awkward or misleading.
Many of us may have found ourselves in situations mulling over the insertion or omission of certain punctuation marks, contemplating le mot juste or pondering how to phrase a sentence. It is with this in mind that this column is being introduced, to help make such situations less frequent and less trying.
This article focuses on a punctuation mark whose use is on the decline. This mark is the hyphen. It is said that Winston Churchill described the hyphen as "...a blemish, to be avoided wherever possible"; I hope to convince you otherwise.
Consider the following scenario: a group-wide actuary (not group wide actuary) asks the junior actuary for the promised six reports of the week. When met with a look of puzzlement and/or horror, the grammatically astute group-wide actuary shows the junior actuary an e-mail sent from the latter stating: "...for this project I shall produce six weekly reports". Of course, what was intended was the production of six-weekly reports, i.e. reports produced every six weeks, as opposed to six per week. Bridging the gap with a hyphen can make a huge difference to one's workload! The use or omission of hyphens reflects intended quantities and time frames. Similar examples are: 'two-year-old capital model', 'two-thirds of the expenses' and 'five-year business plan'.
Hyphens are used to link words to indicate that they have a combined meaning, such as composite adjectives describing nouns, e.g. 'risk-based capital', 'long-term objectives', 'fixed-income bond', 'high-level view', and so on. Consider the phrases: 'the document was signed off', 'the signed-off document' and 'the signed off document'. In the first case it is correct to have the gap because 'signed off' functions as a verb but, in the latter two cases, the words function as adjectives describing the document, so hyphens are preferable. A pedant may argue that omitting the hyphen as in the third case could suggest an 'off' (i.e. rotten/rancid) document that has been signed.
In some cases hyphens are considered optional and often omitted, eg. 'email' instead of 'e-mail'. We would probably not write 'e-business' and 'e-bulletin' without hyphens. Incorrect use of hyphens and incorrect spelling of similar-sounding words could completely alter intended meanings. 'Risk-bearing capital' bears little resemblance to 'risk bearing capital', arguably perhaps a little to 'risk baring capital', and a lot less to 'risk-baring capital'. The last option implicates capital that bares (i.e. exposes/opens up) risk as opposed to the intended meaning of capital that bears (i.e. supports/allows) risk, as understood by 'risk-bearing capital'. When speaking, none of this would be obvious, but the written word is quite a different world.
In some cases it is considered acceptable to have a gap between two words, in other cases to bridge the gap with a hyphen, and in others to join the two words. 'Cross section' isn't quite the same as 'cross-section' and would look inelegant and thus unacceptable if written as 'crosssection'. An insurer would be well advised to reconsider the statement: "We surveyed a cross section of our customers and found them to be very satisfied with our claims-handling". To a stickler, 'cross section' implies a group of cross (i.e. angry) customers; this is not a cross-section (i.e. sample) the insurer would expect to find very satisfied.
Hyphens can aid clarity, especially with words functioning as both adverbs and adjectives: 'more-significant risks' (risks that are more significant) are different to 'more significant risks' (additional significant risks). If I were a politician, I would be wary of how I punctuate my propaganda by minding the gap in 'more late night trains' and hyphenating it thus: 'more late-night trains', as it is the latter that suggests additional trains while the former implies a greater number of trains not being punctual. What would Churchill truly have made of this all-important punctuation mark: just a blemish or hats off to the humble hyphen?
Sonal Shah is a general insurance actuary working in the Prudential Insurance Risk Department at the Financial Services Authority. The views expressed herein are the author's own and not necessarily those of her employer. Please note that this column is not intended to be prescriptive; its purpose is to provide suggestions to help make communication clearer.
Sonal's other columns in the Elegant English series can be found here:
>> Double trouble (plurals)
>> Apostrophe risk (apostrophes)