A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 33: the controversial hyphen

The hyphen, it seems, divides just as much as it connects. This week we take a look at two stories of hyphenation — both literal and metaphorical — gone wrong.

Subscribers to The Times may have come across a June 22nd article by Rose Wild entitled “Rude hyphens are not the work of saboteurs”. Wild’s article promises much to the punctuation-phile:

About seven years ago the style editor of The Times assured readers that those old favourites, the Arse- nal, mans- laughter and the- rapist, were about to disappear from our pages. Thanks to some smart work on the IT front, a hyphenation dictionary embedded in the system would henceforth impose immaculate logic on the splitting of words, when such a thing was needed.

Sadly, Rupert Murdoch’s paywall prevents me from learning more about these scandalous bithorpes and their alleged reappearance in The Times’ tablet edition. Have Shady Characters readers come across these (or any other) failures of automatic hyphenation? Leave your stories in the comments below!

Also on the hyphen front, Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to India came close to derailment at the hands of an implied hyphen. As The Telegraph of Calcutta reports, prior to the presidency of George W. Bush, US policy towards India “was known as ‘hyphenation’: everything to do with India was India-Pakistan, like Af-Pak, denoting Afghanistan-Pakistan, not a standalone relationship with either country.”

George W. Bush (and subsequently Hilary Clinton) instead pursued separate, bilateral relationships with India and Pakistan, but the perception within Indian diplomatic circles was that with Kerry’s arrival, the maligned hyphen was back in the ascendant. The Telegraph concludes that Kerry has averted disaster by forgoing a scheduled meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan, which begs the question: is this the first time that a mark of punctuation has influenced international politics?


Lastly, don’t forget the Shady Characters competition! To enter to win a copy of Hiatus № 1, featuring an article by yours truly, just comment on this post or reply to, retweet or favourite this tweet. Good luck!


Update: …and the competition is closed. Thanks to everyone who entered! I’ll announce the winner in a special blog post tomorrow.

8 comments on “Miscellany № 33: the controversial hyphen

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Frédéric,

      Ah, of course! I had been reading about that particular hyphen-related spat just the other day but it had completely slipped my mind.

      Thanks for the comment!

  1. Comment posted by Diane on

    Dear Keith,
    Your blog is a favourite of mine. Have I missed it, or are you yet to treat the full stop?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Diane,

      I’m afraid that the full stop has been covered only incidentally, as part of the pilcrow’s back story. Thus far I’ve tried to focus on less well-known marks of punctuation, though that isn’t to say that I won’t look at more common marks in the future.

      Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

  2. Comment posted by Amy on

    And here I was — much as I find punctuation-spawned politics interesting — hoping that you’d mention the confusion around hyphens versus en-dashes in structures such as North–South. And I would love nothing more than to read your thoughts on en-dashes with bordering spaces versus em-dashes with no bordering spaces.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Amy,

      This is a big, big topic! As far as hyphen/en dash substitution goes, I’m pretty sure that whatever I might claim to be the case would be wrong according to one style guide or another — certainly, the Shady Characters copy editor caught a number of mistakes in this area. I’d recommend taking a look at the style guide of your choice.

      As for the parenthetical dash, my understanding is that in general, British publications tend to use spaced en dashes while American guides prefers unspaced em dashes. (Having said that, the Oxford Style Manual prefers the US construction.)

      Thanks for the comment, and sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

  3. Comment posted by Robert on

    Hi Keith,

    Please, check your second footnote on page 132 once again.

    The Gutenberg Biblie was composed of just under 1300 pages bearing (of course) forty-two lines of *two columns* text. So, compositors would have had to set somewere around additional 1300 (pages) × 28 (roughly a third of all lines of hyphens) × 2 (columns) space characters.

    Each column of text was composed separately in the days of Gutenberg.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Robert — thanks for catching that! I’ll add that to the list of errata.

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