Dash it all, give me some space!

By Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editing

Ancient Greeks sometimes wrote as the plow goes, first right to left and then left to right—with no spaces between words. Somewhere along the line someone had the great idea that adding space to separate words would aid in readability. Maybe it was when writing went from being a series of notes to self and others to a record for all time. In a parallel development, if a word couldn’t be completed on a given line, the writer inserted marks to indicate that it continued (see this fascinating—to me!—discussion on the origin of the hyphen). Over time, coined terms created by connecting existing words were indicated by these same marks. But, once again, something that is so useful—if not essential—in reading has fallen prey to confusion and misuse.

First, let’s tackle the hyphen. This tiny dash is sprinkled inside and between words liberally. People want to add it between parts of words, especially between the prefix and a root word. So we have “pre-school,” “post-war,” “anti-colonial,” and “re-appear.” Yet, most would not think of adding a hyphen before the suffixes “ed” or “ing” or the prefix “un.” Hyphens are also inserted between words to help clear up any ambiguity. For example, I am a little-known blogger, because the Press’s reach is growing and my schedule doesn’t always leave me time for pontificating on all things grammatical. But I am not a little, known blogger (neither very small nor very well known). But no possible ambiguity exists when a “slowly moving car is in the left lane of the highway.” Clearly the car is what is moving not fast enough for some other drivers. So why do I often find hyphens between adverbs and things they are modifying, as if the adverb is a mystical part of speech unable to survive untethered to other words?

On the other side of the coin are those who think it is cool to remove spaces—or hyphens—between words. Some create new terms by mashing words together, which can be a poetic turn. I find soundscape evocative and a nice foil for landscape, for example. Other times it seems affected. One book I worked on recently used wellbeing rather than well-being. Maybe I am just old fashioned, but I like the hyphen separating the two permanently joined words. For me, companies who want to name themselves one large word with multiple capital letters are the extreme of this trend. Yes, it is true that this former bookseller is still mad at Harper and Row for turning into HarperCollins in the 1980s. And PricewaterhouseCoopers got so tired of their own long name that their website uses PwC.

Remember this: hyphens and spaces are tools to help us read and communicate. If you are hammering a nail, you don’t also throw in a wrench, screwdriver, and needle nose pliers. You only use the tools you need. So, be sparing when strewing those bits of punctuation about. Judicious use will allow others to know what you are trying to say. Too much—or too little—will slow down your audience and give those reading your words a bumpier ride.