21 Sep 2007

Object of small grammatical desire

Submitted by Karl Hagen
This article from the BBC magazine talks about the decline of the hyphen. The new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has apparently removed the hyphens from some 16,000 words, reflecting a decline in how people use them. The headline, as is often the case with such articles, is only tangentially related to the content of the piece: "Small object of grammatical desire." But no one in the article actually seems to desire the hyphen that much. The reporter apparently couldn't find anyone to play the role of the curmudgeonly prescriptivist and bemoan the decline of the hyphen. Of course hyphenation has always been one of the most variable aspects of English usage, and so it's probably hard for anyone to get too worked up about it. Perhaps the adjective was misplaced: Object of small grammatical desire. The primary thing I noted about the article, though was the putative cause advanced for the change (e-mail and the hurry of modern communication), which seems pretty weak to me. After all, with hyphens, we're talking about usage in printed, presumably edited, writing, not text messages. The idea that authors are somehow reluctant to reach over for the hyphen key because they are in a hurry, and that editors can't be bothered to correct things to their house style when necessary doesn't seem very plausible. Hyphen usage was unstable before the era of electronic communication. It has been unstable afterwards. No causality there, as far as I can see.