First Things First:
Why the Name ‘hyphenman’?

As domain names go, “hyphenman” is obviously one of the easiest to remember. But what kind of anal-retentive jerk would emphasize something so inconsequential and utterly irrelevant as the hyphen? An anal-retentive jerk like me.

by Hyphenman on May 24, 2012

Make no mistake. I love the hyphen. I really do. I even have reasons for it. They relate to what this site is about, what I am about, and what writing is about.

To start with, I have spent much of my life fighting for justice, both in my personal affairs and in my professional career as a journalist. It may sound silly, but the poor little hyphen is a perpetual victim.

As punctuation marks go, it is the most mistreated, the most misunderstood, the most
abused, and the most neglected. You don’t see that kind of treatment doled out to either the much more frequently used period or comma, though both of them do come in for a fair share of abuse.

Secondly, I am a stickler for grammar. You might think that my many years as a copyeditor turned me into such a person. Not so. My many years as a stickler for grammar turned me into a copyeditor.

I picked the name “hyphenman” not because I am obsessed with the hyphen – well, not only because I am obsessed with the hyphen – but because it is a symbol. Its proper use is difficult if not impossible to master, the same as perfection is something that none of us will ever achieve as writers. But perfection is the goal we strive for and aim at, the same as mastery of the hyphen should be that star we continue to reach for.

In a book first published in 1946, How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively, Rudolf Flesch got to the essence of what I’m talking about.

“Punctuation, to most people,” he wrote, “is a set of arbitrary and rather silly rules you find in printers’ style books and in the back pages of school grammars. Few people realize that it is the most important single device for making things easier to read.”

That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of the hyphen. And that is my goal with this site: to make writing, all writing, easier to read.

Whether your communication takes the form of a message in an essay, a character in a novel, or a set of facts in a work of non-fiction, the bridge that connects your words to the reader’s mind is clarity. That, too, is the function of the hyphen. It removes confusion, doubt, and misunderstanding and lets your audience keep reading without stumbling.

Perhaps the only thing more challenging than producing prose that is clear, concise, and compelling is learning where the hyphen belongs and where it doesn’t.

In Manuscript and Proof, the stylebook of the Oxford University Press, publishers of the most renowned dictionary in the world, John Benbow warned, “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”

Roy H. Copperud, author of American Usage and Style: The Consensus, cites that warning in his book and adds his own: “Authorities generally agree that the use of hyphens tends to defy rules.”

Part of what makes it so vexing is that there is no source to consult, no expert to turn to. In many cases, the decision to insert or omit the hyphen depends solely on the intent of the writer and what he meant to convey. The responsibility, in other words, falls on your shoulders alone.

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in their venerable classic The Elements of Style warn that the little, sneaky hyphen can play tricks on the unwary. They cite as an example the merger of the Chattanooga News with the Free Press. The new newspaper became the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

The silliness and absurdity of the name may not be readily apparent. We read right past the hyphen and see the Chattanooga News as one entity and the Free Press as the other. But  here’s what the hyphen does: It links “News” and “Free” together, turning them into an adjective and making the Chattanooga Press “news-free.” That, in turn, gives readers no reason to buy it, other than curiosity about what has filled the void left by the absence of news.

That brings me to another reason for calling this site “hyphenman.” Proper use of the hyphen requires a combination of care and thought.

If I can get you, regardless of your age, experience, level of skill or talent, to exercise more care in what you write and to think about every word you choose, then I have done the job I’ve carved out for myself.

But school is not in session yet. In future posts, I will be quoting the experts and reciting the rules, such as they are, that govern the hyphen. More importantly, I will be doing much, much more than that: challenging some of the conventional wisdom about writing and giving you better alternatives; tackling some of the thorniest problems you may encounter and guiding you out of them; and advising you on every kind of writing from novels to memoirs.

If you come along for the ride, I don’t believe you will go mad. I believe you will become a better writer.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Hopkins May 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Nice start, David! You write well — and others would be smart to heed your advice.


2 Mary Cooch, teacher and author May 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I like your style! I did enjoy the “6th month anniversary” article — I got about a paragraph down and then it suddenly dawned on me why we can’t have a 6 month anniversary — so I got there before your punchline! I put it down to having done Latin at school, something rarely taught in schools these days but which I consider to have been really useful to me in later years. I wish I had done Greek as well, to complement it. Etymology is very valuable!

I shall look forward to reading more of your writing.


3 Pam Nelson June 7, 2012 at 8:14 pm

You’ve made a great start, David, on this worthy pursuit. I wish you great success!


4 Taylor Mason June 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm

The fact that you even use the word “grammar” in correct context puts you in the top 1% of “writers” who are on the world wide web (notice I did NOT use the hyphen, as many do, between the words “world,” “wide,” and “web.”). As always I find your work to be thoughtful and inspiring. Please keep me in the loop as your work continues.


5 James Scott Bell June 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Go for it, David. Being a Zinsser man, I’m all for this.


6 Hyphenman June 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Thanks, Jim. I can assure you that references to William Zinsser’s On Writing Well will appear on this site in future posts. His classic, incredibly short little book inspired monumental changes back in my early days of newspaper reporting, before I had even learned the weakness of the passive voice.

For those who don’t know the many hats that Jim wears and his abundance of diverse talents, here’s a quick rundown: He is a former trial lawyer who has turned out a whole series of pulse-pounding thrillers. He also has written no less than five instructional books on the art of fiction. Just for good measure, he has even created his own genre, something he calls “zombie legal thrillers.” (You can check out his site by clicking on his name.)

Nice to have you represented on the site, Jim.


7 Ellie Brecher June 12, 2012 at 1:51 am

I too love the hyphen, and its big, bold cousin the 3m-dash. If you could “hear” punctuation, the dash would be a pregnant pause. And as we know, timing is everything. That certainly applies to the good timing of this blog (in an age of anything-goes grammar). By the way, that quiz made me feel like a moron….
I’ll tune in again. Best of luck.


8 Barbara Rogan July 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Your focus on precision in writing reminds me of one of Mark Twain’s rules: “Use the right word, not its cousin.”


9 VikLit July 2, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I am going to come to you with all my grammar queries! (I do love a grammar book/post/everything, but still queries get me).


10 buddy April 10, 2013 at 1:48 am

Your site and your Pinterest have hours and hours of IMPORTANT insights for writers.

Thanks for doing this and doing it so well.


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