On encouraging a prescriptivist to use more hyphens

Published by marco on

The title sounds like a self-post on Writing Prompts, but it describes quite accurately what I attempted to do when formulating a response to the essay Nobody. Understands. Punctuation. by Peter Welch (Still Drinking).

Below is the text of my mail to him.

I’ve read a few of your essays since you made such a splash with what you are probably aware is your making-it-to-the-big-time essay ”Programming Sucks” and I enjoyed the last one propounding descriptivism over prescriptivism.

A descriptivist is ordinarily well-shielded from any sort of grammatical suggestions because even the most bull-headed of grammar Nazis should know a lost cause when they see one. But I detected more than a whiff of someone who was interested in language and expression and, more than anything else, being *understood*. I liked the description of writing as being a medium through which “writers are trying to transfer the voices in their heads into yours.”[1]

I read through as you lavished attention on semicolons, the beloved em-dash, colons and commas. But you paid only lip service to the dash or hyphen, leaving it without an example in your essay.

I write because I thought that my dear friend the hyphen could have been more enthusiastically represented in a few other places in your writing.[2] I stumbled only a few times when reading your essay, across what I like to call “speed bumps”, which are where a punctuation choice causes me to read a sentence in an unintended manner until I end up in a dead end of sorts — a parsing error — from which I must back-track until I find the fork in the sentence at which I stopped following the author’s intent. In my experience, these forks often arise from a missing hyphen; that was the case in the following sentence:

“Punctuation started with periods that told the speaker when to take a breath, and as both a long time proponent of using the run on sentence to better communicate the ranting rage in my head over the nonsense that people choose to fight about in this country and a person who is occasionally asked to read his work out loud, I’ve come to value this original function in a visceral way.”

I would have had an easier time reading the sentence above had you included a hyphen between “long” and “time” and, ironically, “run” and “on”. Perhaps it’s just me and my penchant for hyphens. Their absence online and in many otherwise excellent essays by excellent authors occasionally gives me pause and reason to wonder whether my expectation of them is wrong-headed. Perhaps others are much more easily able to read “wrong headed” as a single word without a hyphen, or “back track” or “bull headed”. But, when I look these words up in a dictionary, there they are, defined in the official dictionary as having a hyphen.

I hope you take this missive in the spirit in which it was offered — and also as what it quite clearly also is: just a bit of fun writing on my part. I hope too that you are open-minded enough to consider whether maybe, just maybe, the hyphen could be paid a bit more attention and perhaps even wend its way into your writing where it would not only be grammatically correct but genuinely useful to the task of conveying meaning and fostering understanding on the part of the intended audience.

Cheers and keep up the good work. I follow your blog with pleasure.


[1] As your essay made abundantly clear, it’s not that a descriptivist doesn’t care about punctuation, but rather that punctuation rules shouldn’t become a distraction from the main task of imparting meaning. For example, I am strongly of the opinion that it matters not at all whether I place a period or comma within or without an ending quote because it has zero effect on the pacing of the sentence. I chose “inside” for old-time’s sake.
[2] As an aside, I want to stress that my attitude toward punctuation lines up quite closely with your own.[3] Did I consider briefly whether I should surround “the hyphen” in the previous sentence with commas? I did, but decided that my mental oration of it didn’t require them, so I left them out. Did I also consider whether “briefly” in the second sentence of this footnote should be bracketed — nay, strait-jacketed — with commas as well? I did, and moved on, once again, without them.
[3] Am I also a fan of footnotes as a source of humor and tangential information? I am.