Note: This is a deviation from the usual content on Critical Mess. But as it says right up there in the header, “Everything is text.” And today, “text” includes epidemics of punctuation errors.
My resume says I have a “passion for appropriate hyphen usage.” This isn’t me trying to be cute. This is just a fact. Hyphens are my personal windmills. Every day I tilt at examples of their misuse on the internet, wailing and railing and ultimately failing to change anything. When I’m done wailing, I take a screenshot of the offense and drag it into a desktop folder entitled “Word Crimes.”
For some time now, the worst repeat offender has been the Unmoored Compound Modifier. When two words work together to describe one thing, that is called a compound modifier, and it is compounded with the aid of your friendly neighborhood hyphen. All too often, though, your friendly neighborhood hyphen is neglected and left to sulk at home. Do you know how many “award winning journalists” are not award-winning grammarians? So, so many.
When you do not hyphenate compound modifiers, two things happen: The first thing is that you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. The second thing is that, sometimes, the meaning of your sentence changes entirely. To illustrate my point, here’s a drawing I did in college one time:
Sadly, it is too late to save Prince (RIP Prince), but it is NOT too late to save the hyphen from falling into ill repute. Simply use hyphens the right way and no one else has to get hurt. How, though? Great question. I’ll answer it later, but first I have to talk about a much worse hyphen infraction that’s been gaining steam lately:
The Extremely Unnecessary Hyphen (EUH)
EUH is what happens when an illiterate serf sticks a hyphen between an adverb and adjective. I don’t know when it started, but now it’s happening everywhere, all the time. And it’s tearing me up inside.
I first encountered EUH in a tweet. Since adverbs should be the first thing to pitch when you’re trying to fit a hot take into 140 characters, I figured this was an isolated incident. This person clearly didn’t know how adverbs worked in the first place. But then I saw it again. And again! In blog posts! In Facebook rants! In the New York Times.
Here are some examples from the past week alone. Look at this mess. Just look at it
To all of this I ask: What the fuck? When did this ever look, sound, or feel correct?
Rather than self-destructing as it ought, the scourge of EUH is spreading with increasing and alarming speed. People who slept through the entirety of elementary school must be seeing examples of EUH on the internet, mistaking it for something that isn’t absolutely wrong, and picking up the habit like so much cocaine. Please stop.
The Unmoored Compound Modifier I can forgive. In a world where punctuation in general is becoming passé, what’s a lost hyphen in a headline here or there? It’s wrong, but it’s not an error with the glare of a thousand suns. But the Extremely Unnecessary Hyphen — that has to stop. That error glares.
I don’t want to see another innocent hyphen dashed against the rocks that are your terrible editors’ unseeing eyes. So I’m going to help you. If twelve years of mandatory education didn’t drill into your heads the maddeningly simple rules of hyphens, then perhaps an extended metaphor will do the trick.
Listen up, serfs.
Let us imagine that sentences fragments work like family trees. The noun, or the subject, is you. And right now, you are dog.
When we draw family trees, parents and ancestors who came before us are drawn above, up the trunk. Just as your mom came before you, so too does the adjective come before the noun in this weird language that we’re all stuck with thanks to colonialism.
So let’s give you an adjectival mother. Let’s say this dog is a good dog.
Okay, but all dogs are good. Let’s give this dog another quality. Show, don’t tell, if you will. Does your dog lick your face? Does it lick faces indiscriminately and make you jealous when it appears to prefer your ex-boyfriend Chet’s face? Then perhaps it is a face-licking dog! Enter the compound modifier.
Both the words “face” and “licking” are now your parents. We join them in holy matrimony by connecting them with a line — a hyphen — on the family tree. Ta-da! Their union is sanctified and you need not be raised in sin.
Notice how neither word is sufficient in describing this dog on its own. “Face dog” makes no sense, and just “licking dog” doesn’t really paint us a picture. If you want it to be known that your dog is one that licks faces, you must hyphenate that compound modifier. Your parents must wed. It’s just how things are done around here.
Now let’s tackle the Extremely Unnecessary Hyphen problem. To do this, we must go farther up the family tree. Since we’ll be using more than two parts of speech for this lesson (calm down), let’s keep things as simple as possible. Let’s say, once again, that the dog is good. But how good is it? Is it mildly good? Can its goodness be questioned? No way. It is indubitably good.
We’ve established that “good” is your mom (this does not imply that your mom is good eyyy). By the logic of this metaphor, that makes “indubitably” your grandfather. That’s because “indubitably” is describing the goodness of the dog, not the dog itself. The adverb modifies your mom, your mom modifies you. It’s a family reunion!
When you type this out in a sentence — say, “My indubitably good dog and I went for a stroll today” — you may be tempted to hyphenate “indubitably good.” Do not do this. Think about it. A hyphen is a marriage. That hyphen means that your mother and your grandfather got married to create you, amongst other unspeakable horrors. You just became your own auntie.
Adverbs do not hyphenate with adjectives.* It just isn’t done. Adverbs exist to modify adjectives, not to fornicate with them. Next time you’re tempted to put a hyphen after anything that ends in -ly, ask yourself, “Would I like it if my mother and my sister were the same person?” If the answer is no (hint: it is), take your uneducated finger off of that hyphen key and let it be.
If you think the badness of this scenario is disproportionate to the badness of the Unmoored Compound Modifier scenario, you’re right! It’s way worse for your dad to also be your granddad than it is for your parents to be unmarried. That abomination is how I think of EUH. It is revolting. It is a sin against Man and God.
Listen, guys. We can’t stop the extraneous apostrophe. When Siri autocorrects “were” to “we’re” six times until you give up and just send the hideous text, you know the war is over. Time to muster your forces and put them where they really count: ending hyphen misuse.
Hyphens are literally the easiest things in the world not to muck up, but somehow the internet at large finds a way to muck them up. Every day. There are editors out there getting paid good money by reputable publications to muck up. I lose sleep over this. Please stop mucking up. I am so tired.
Thank you very much for listening. Go forth and hyphenate appropriately.
*Okay, I lied. All adverbs but one get the no-hyphen treatment. “Well” gets the hyphen treatment, but only sometimes.** When you’re putting your modifiers before the noun, as in “That is a well-behaved dog!” you hyphenate. But if they come after the noun, no hyphens! “That dog is well behaved.” Leave it alone! No marriage for you!
To help you remember this, think of “well” as a distant cousin to your mother. You know they’re related, you’re just not sure how. But everyone’s more or less cool with it because they love each other and you live in Arkansas.
But if this modifier comes after you, the noun, like hell you’re going to let your child repeat past generations’ mistakes. We know better now! Even if very distant cousins can still technically reproduce without anything too weird happening, it’s just too awkward these days. Move on! Find someone better on Tinder!
**I lied again. “Ever” and “never” also get this treatment. I’m sorry. I didn’t make the rules.