Friday, April 23, 2010

Hyphens: when to use them

When people ask about hyphens, I talk about Frankenstein, rhythm and glue. This is what makes me an unusual teacher: I make up more resonant ways to remember correct usage.

Examples are often easier to understand than rules, so let's start with a few of those. These hyphens are all correct:

-A do-it-yourself kit
-A technology-based solution
-A lily-lined basket
-A wish-you-were-here postcard
-A 6-year-old boy
-A 20-percent discount
-The end-user experience

These are all examples of compound modifiers. In other words, multiple words together ("compound") modify (or describe) a final word. You can usually hear the rhythm: BLAH-BLAH-BLAH blah, DA-DA-DA da. They feel like they go together. So if you write by instinct or ear and feel fuzzy on grammar and punctuation, I suggest listening for this rhythm as your first guidepost. Then clarify your thinking with a few easy principles, which I'll explain in a bit.

Also correct but confusing:

-I will make a follow-up call.
-I will call to follow up with him.
-I will handle the follow-up.

Same words, different hyphen usage. Bummer, huh? Why the inconsistency? Here's where we talk about Frankenstein. I'll warn you now: It's a little gory.

Think of "parts of speech" as body parts -- arms, legs, nose, etc., rather than nouns, verbs and prepositions.

Notice the "body parts" in the examples above:

  • follow up -- verb + preposition
  • follow-up call -- as above but "follow-up" is glued together with a hyphen and used as an adjective modifying call
  • follow-up -- verb + preposition used to make a noun

Why this matters: You don't need a hyphen when the words are being used as their natural selves -- as in, a verb used as a verb rather than forced into service as an adjective.

The Frankenstein analogy refers to putting together disparate "body parts" to create a new whole. It's unnatural. When you do something unnatural, you need glue to hold it all together. (This sounds goofy in the real world, I know, but it's a good memory tip, so ...)

Hyphens are glue. They hold together Frankenstein words, which are words forced into unnatural service as something other than their natural parts of speech.

So if you "call to follow up," you are using "follow" as a verb, which it is, and "up" as a preposition, which it is. Nothing unnatural. No hyphen.

But if you "make a follow-up call," you are forcing the verb and preposition into an unnatural new role as an adjective modifying call. This is a Frankenstein word. You need glue (a hyphen).

Let's look again at the first set of examples. To get rid of the hyphens, you need to use words as their natural parts of speech:

  • a kit that lets you do it yourself
  • a solution based on technology
  • a basket lined with lilies
  • the boy is 6 years old
  • the experience of the end user

There are two exceptions to the compound-modifier rule, but I will save those until the very end of this post.

Now you know most of what you need to know about compound modifiers. And now you realize that your "hyphen" question is really a "compound modifier" question. But there's another situation where hyphens turn up, and luckily the Frankenstein and glue metaphors apply there, too.

Here's Part 2: hyphenated nouns. When you put two words together to make a new noun, they become a Frankenstein word, so you need glue (a hyphen). In "I will handle the follow-up," we've turned "follow" and "up" into a noun, even though -- when taken separately -- the parts are actually a verb and a preposition.

Eventually over time, some hyphens go away. It's hard to keep up with which words have gone over to the other side. So I suggest checking whenever you wonder if a word is one word, two words or hyphenated. The AP Stylebook is usually in agreement.

Examples of words people often think are hyphenated but aren't:

  • pickup
  • firsthand
  • nonprofit
  • end user (two words)

That last one is tricky, though, right? Now you know that it's not hyphenated as a noun but that would be if you turned it into a compound modifier: end-user experience.

Got it?

Hyphens are glue. You need them for Frankenstein words. Your first clue that you might be looking at a compound modifier may be the rhythm: two things modifying a third, three things modifying a fourth, DA-DA-DA da.

Now for the exceptions to the compound-modifier rule:

(1) Ly-adverbs never take a hyphen (which makes sense because the adverb remains an adverb) -- centrally located knob, specially designed interface, wholly owned subsidiary.

(2) Proper nouns never take a hyphen -- Jordan branded handheld, Web hosted application, Cincinnati based headquarters

A final word: A dash is not a hyphen, and a hyphen is not a dash. They are not interchangeable. A dash -- the long version of a hyphen or two hyphens together -- is scissors. Scissors cut things apart. Dashes can sometimes replace commas, as I've done two sentences above this one in blue. Dashes, as scissors, cut apart the parenthetical explanation from the rest of the sentence.

I could say more about the dash, but let's leave that for another post.

For now, just remember:

(1) Compound modifiers take hyphens unless they involve a proper noun or an "-ly" adverb.

(2) To find out if a noun is hyphenated, look it up in the AP Stylebook first and, if it's not there, look in up at

Friday, April 16, 2010

website, not Web site -- rare revision from AP

It finally happened. Earth has fallen out of orbit. The blue moon, once a rarity, has now become every night’s moon.

The AP -- which hardly ever changes its stylebook at all, other than to add or rearrange – has changed its style on Web site, which is now website.


This is the day we’ve been waiting for. I didn’t think it would come so soon, though by some people’s estimates, it’s 10 years late.

So it’s website, not Web site – got it? As of today.

From Twitter, about an hour ago: @APStylebook "Responding to reader input, we are changing Web site to website. This appears on Stylebook Online today and in the 2010 book next month."

Thanks, Michelle Cwirko-Godycki, for alerting me.

OK, I'll ask: When can we change e-mail to email? I'm begging. Pleading, really. Let that be next.


People have been asking me, "Why was it like that before?" Well, in 1995, it made more sense to say Web site than website. Back then, the Internet was called the World Wide Web and people actually used the term.

Most of the time, we called it the World Wide Wait.

It took many minutes for a page to load and when it finally got there, the info wasn't worth the time. The only browser was Netscape. The notion of an effective search engine was still just a gleam in a visionary's eye.

World Wide Web is a proper noun, like Spain. So the exact term back then was World Wide Web site, and only the most devoted geeks had the patience to visit one. And this was back in the day when "geek" wasn't a compliment.

In the AP's San Francisco bureau, I remember a summer evening in 1995 when a coworker showed me the World Wide Web. We had to turn on the lights ahead of us as we walked to a darkened section of the office where no one was sitting.

She flipped some switches and did a little typing. Then we waited and waited, chatting and killing time but mostly waiting. Recognizable images eventually took shape on the screen. I can't remember what they were because they were about as useful to me as a speck of dust.

Now, a website is a fully formed concept in everyone's mind. Not only do the vast majority of us have personal experiences with websites, we feel crippled without them. The Internet is omniscient, omnipresent, interactive, social and highly personal.

It would have been nice if The AP had made this change in 2000, the dot-com bubble's peak. By then, Nasdaq had become an important stock index and Internet companies were making headlines every day. Surely, by then, anyone who didn't live in a cave knew about websites.

But -- I hate to say it (sorry, New Yorkers) -- The AP's headquarters is in New York City, which (fabulous though it is) is conservative -- in thinking, writing, editing, business attire and definitely enthusiasm about new technology. So California may have been ready in 2000, but NYC wasn't.

You'd think The AP could have done it in 2005. But then again, The AP aims to be as inclusive as possible. News should be easy to digest on a fast first read, by anyone. The AP errs on the side of immediate clarity. And maybe in 2005 there were still a few elderly people in small towns in Idaho who didn't know about websites.

In The AP's defense, one of the reasons AP style is an industry standard is because it doesn't flip-flop with the times.

Also in The AP's defense, it was way ahead of the rest of the world in technology innovation of its own and always has been. Six competing newspapers (in NYC) founded The Associated Press in 1848 so they could share the costs of a crazy new technology called the telegraph.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fools' Day: Edwards to Terminate Best-of-Breed Educational Assistance; Cult-Like Status Fades to Legend; Your Guru No More

SAN MATEO, Calif., April 1, 2010 -- Lauren Edwards, a leading provider of educational guidance for professionals in the public relations industry and an unparallelled specialist in delivering best-of-breed customized workshops for technology companies in emerging markets, today announced termination of her revolutionary campaign against corporate communications featuring formulaic leads and canned messaging.

"At a time when more PR professionals are increasingly challenged to compose corporate communications that provide clients with a more streamlined internal approval process, it is crucial that they seek out robust, scalable and secure solutions to their writing challenges," said Edwards, writing coach at the Silicon Valley office of Edelman. "Therefore, I will heretofore downsize my cult-like status as a guru of approachable communications methodologies and join them in writing dense paragraphs, choosing Latinate words over Anglo-Saxon and misusing semicolons as a means to position their clients as thought leaders."

Kidding, of course.

Happy April Fools' Day!