Monday, July 18, 2011

To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate?

What I'm reading: Deadly Currents, by Beth Groundwater

I'm slowly reaching the end of my copy edits for ROOTED IN DANGER. As I mentioned, just because this is the second editorial pass doesn't mean all the errors have been caught, so I have been reading the whole book. She's caught things that weren't picked up on the first pass, but I've also caught a few glitches that nobody else did.

For the most part, the editor's suggestions have been painless, and I agree with most of them. There are a few places where she's changed sentence structure, and it didn't work for me.

My mom's first language was German, not English, and her sentence structure often followed the Germanic patterns. Our family favorite: "Look for me in the bottom drawer for the pound cake."  Of course, my brother and I opened the bottom drawer and said, "Mom! You're in here!"

In one case, I'd written: She went into the bedroom closet and dragged the cardboard carton she’d brought with her to the bedside. 

The editor preferred: She went into the bedroom closet and dragged to the bedside the cardboard carton she’d brought with her.

Which would you prefer?

The editor also likes hyphens when a two-word phrase modifies a noun. I'm more likely to avoid the hyphens (I use enough of them as it is) unless they make the meaning clearer.

For example, if you write "small animal hospital," that's entirely different from "small-animal hospital." The first can refer to the size of the hospital, while the second makes it clear that they won't be having horses or cows as patients.

But there are others where I don't think there's really going to be much confusion on the part of the reader. And isn't that what almost all those pesky grammar rules are for, anyway? Do we follow the letter of the law, or do we go with intent?

So – how about a little quiz. These are examples from the manuscript. Which ones (in red) need hyphens in the context of the sentences to make the meaning clearer? You can answer (or not, as you prefer) in the comments. But I'd love to hear from you.

1. Torie nibbled room service toast and sipped ginger ale.

2. Steel band music wafted from the distance.

3. She thought he was going to kiss her last night—a real kiss—and then he did that kid sister thing.

4. Torie didn’t need to hear about the private, covert ops side of the business, where Fozzie spent most of his time.

5. But something raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and he never ignored his early warning system.

6. Beach boy hair.

7. “What about him?” she asked as they passed the man’s body on the living room floor

8. I spent some time reading that support group site for Willamette Syndrome.

9. “They may get the forensics wrong on television,” Brad said, “and play fast and loose with the legal system, but they usually get the human nature part right."

10. The red master warning light came on.

Tomorrow, my guest is Laurin Wittig. Her topic is setting. Definitely worth coming back for. And I should be over at the Blood Red Pencil doing my once-a-month blog post.

(Note: I switched to Blogger's new editor, which I don't really like--it imports too much wasted code from Word--but I thought I'd give it a try. If things look wonky, I'll probably switch back. Let me know if there are problems with what you see.)


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I used to use a lot more hyphens than I do now. I don't know if that's because I've noticed a change in the industry in regard to hyphens, or if it's personal preference! I think most of your examples don't need hyphens.

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't use a lot of hyphens either - I think most of the examples are very clear.

The post looks clean to me - no issues at all :)

Hart Johnson said...

I like your sentence structure better. The 'to the bed' in the middle indeed sounds like translation.

As for hyphens, I am more inclined to use them than you are, I think, but less than your editor. I think though, your editor is technically right, so you won't get in trouble there. It's just I don't always think to do it. I don't think to distinguish the words as a NOUN versus as a modifier.

Courtney Rene said...

Hyphens - I am not much of a user, but there are some days that I find I am hyphen happy. I have watched the industry change with regard to hyphens, so in the end, I tend to hyphenate where I want and have the editor add/delete where they want. I'm pretty easy in that aspect.


C.C. Harrison said...

Terry, I am SO with you on this!!

First let me say, I would not hypenate any of your examples.

I, too, avoid hyphens when the meaning is clear. I remember when I received the edits for my very first novel, my first impression was that every other word and phrase was hypenated. I was actually a bit shocked.

Though technically correct, I didn't think the hyphens were needed, and I certainly didn't like the way they looked on the page. I changed most of them back expecting to get a tongue-lashing from the editor. I didn't.

When the same thing happened with my next book, I took a look at my sentence structure and wondered if there was something about the way I put my sentences together that made this a problem. I modified my sentence structure in my next books to avoid the hyphen question.

I view commas the same way. I was told a long time ago not to worry about where the commas go if the meaning is clear, and to basically put a comma where you would normally take a breath if I was unsure of the proper placement. I pretty much followed that advice through the years. Consequently, there are a lot of comma additions from my editors, which to my eye clutters up the pages, but I ALWAYS defer to the editor on the commas.

And you enlightened me on another element of my sentence structure. I, too, come from German (and Polish) families, and grew up listening to those speech patterns when converted to English. I usually catch these myself and make the changes in my manuscript before it gets to the editing stage.

Great blog, Terry.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - I use enough hyphens to make up "words" so I don't think I need many other ones.

Jemi - thanks. I find the new editor is more cumbersome in some respects, but it does carry over the formatting.

Hart - the examples I gave were the way I'd originally written things; the editor added the hyphens. While she's "right" I'll see if she'll accept my 'stet' for them.

Courtney - my editor would probably love you! I always find something to "discuss"

CC - I'll quote you if my editor doesn't like my "don't hyphenate, please" remarks. I didn't ask what my editor's language background is.

And -- the publisher might have given the editor their house style guide, and she's simply adhering to it.

amber polo said...

I'm from Milwaukee and grew up hearing some strange word orders.
"Throw mother down the stairs an apple."

Does "that she brought with her" have to be in the sentence? Somehow the carton got in the closet. Maybe you need to explain that as another thought.

IMO, hyphens should make the meaning clearer or link two words that make one idea, where if used separately their meanings would make no sense. Did that make sense?

Terry Odell said...

Amber. I think the rest of the paragraph puts the carton in context, but it's something to revisit.

I'm with you (I think) on using hyphens when they clarify, but not simply because CMS says there's a rule about them. I find them distracting otherwise.

Mimi Barbour said...

I think the first example read easier. But that's just me!
I'm lucky with my editor as she seems to like where and when I use the's the blasted comas I have trouble with...sigh!!

Karen said...

A little later than usual today. I would prefer the sentence as you wrote it; I had to re-read the editor's sentence a couple of times to 'get it'. And your 10 examples for hyphens? I would not have used hyphens in any of them. To be honest, when I'm reading, I don't pay all that much attention to whether the author used a hyphen incorrectly.

Terry Odell said...

Mimi -- there's the crux of it ... "it's just me" means different authors, different editors see things differently once you get beyond the basic rules of grammar.

Karen - since I didn't include the hyphens either, it's the way I prefer it. We'll see what happens when I turn in my edits. The trouble with writing is that you DO notice things like that.

Delia Latham said...

I tend to use hyphens when using a (two-word) descriptive adjective, but this is probably because of my history as a newspaper journalist.

As far as your sentence goes, maybe there's just more information than the reader needs? How about something like: She dragged the cardboard carton she'd brought with her from the closet to the bedside. You could even scratch "she'd brought with her," unless that fact is crucial to the point you're making.

Great post!

Terry Odell said...

Delia - Yes, sometimes those hyphens help make it clear that there are two words (or more) modifying the noun.

As for the other sentence, I'll be re-reading everything before I make my own suggestions to the editor.

Lev Raphael said...

What can be really annoying is different house styles so if you change publishers you have to learn what they like (and whether you want to fight it or not).

Loved your take, Terry, and thanks for dropping by Huffington Post and commenting on my blog on copyediting:

Terry Odell said...

Lev - house style, editorial preferences, new editors -- all things that interfere with just writing the book. I've written for 4 different publishers and probably a dozen different editors at the various levels.

And then there's the change in usage that is way ahead of the style guides: Internet or internet? email or e-mail?