Why Is Advertising So Hostile to Hyphens?

By Mark Nichol

What is it about hyphens that strike such abject fear in the minds of those in the advertising realm? An oft-cited justification for omitting this eminently useful linkage sign in marketing and packaging copy is that its absence enhances a clean, uncluttered visual design.

What this means is that, for example, “fast acting cleanser,” especially when printed in an exuberant typeface rendered in a Day-Glo hue on a plastic bottle, is easier to read when deprived of they hyphen, that to insert the mark in “fast acting” to properly signal that the adjectival phrase is a single unit of meaning modifying cleanser will result in a dissonant consumer experience. (Translation: The delicate, distraught shopper, dismayed by the confusing, complicating hyphen, will plunk the bottle back onto the shelf in favor of a less brain-taxing branding message.)

You will, I trust, forgive the sarcasm when I argue that perhaps if advertisers focused on producing clear, concise, coherent copy, their feeble-minded targets would be in a more conducive condition to overcome the cognitive challenge of appropriately placed punctuation marks. (I concede that generally, bits and pieces of packaging copy are well written; it’s when marketing copywriters take on entire sentences and whole paragraphs that the perils of hyphenation become the least of their worries.)

I wonder sometimes whether the disinclination among advertisers to hyphenate is motivated not by a desire for uncluttered graphic design but by a fear among marketing bunnies of being outed as people afraid to use hyphens because the rules about using them are so complicated. The difficulty, however, is overrated; here’s a fairly simple guide.

Hyphenophobia, fortunately, though pervasive, is not all conquering. I was delighted, when examining three random cans or jars of food in my cupboard, to discover that on each, the package copy courageously retains the perilous hyphen — and uses it correctly. I exulted in reading about vine-ripened tomatoes and great-tasting tomatoes and fire-roasted tomatillos on packaging produced by different companies. (Maybe producers of organic food are more courageous than mainstream packagers.)

These examples illustrate the clarifying value of a hyphen:

“Gatorade is a low calorie hydrator” implies that the beverage in question is a short or morally deficient calorie hydrator. “Gatorade is a low-calorie hydrator” informs us that the beverage is a hydrator of the low-calorie variety.

“Leave a million dollar legacy” exhorts you to leave a dollar legacy that is a million. “Leave a million-dollar legacy” explicates that the recommended legacy consists of a million dollars.

“Soma is a non-habit forming tranquilizer” suggests that the forming tranquilizer known as Soma is of the non-habit variety. “Soma is a non-habit-forming tranquilizer” identifies the tranquilizer Soma as one that is not addictive.

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12 Responses to “Why Is Advertising So Hostile to Hyphens?”

  • Brian Tristam Williams

    Oh, the irony. I’m looking at an ad on this page that says “SELF PUBLISH YOUR BOOK.” Wouldn’t “SELF-PUBLISH” work better?

  • Lillian

    As a marketing copywriter, I agree with your entry about advertisers in general being hostile toward hyphens. I’m a stickler about them, but find that clients and creative directors often want them removed from the copy I write. This is met with protests on my part, but I often end up conceding when the client and/or president of my agency put up too much of a fight. Your article serves as a pep talk for me and I will continue the battle to keep hyphens where they belong. Thanks for the reinforcement!

  • Blankstein

    Do not want to be cheeky, but the advertisers, albeit not with much foresight, just want to sell, and sell it fast. They do not want to invest an extra minute in proofreading or – God forbid! – contemplating the rules that they hated since middle school.
    But that happens not only to advertisers. One may read in a respectable blog something that is really hard to digest: “….is easier to read when deprived of they hyphen, that to insert the mark ….”
    Sorry about it.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Good blow-by-blow on low-brow ad omissions.

  • Bob Kaplan

    Re: “Hyphenophobia, fortunately, though pervasive, is not all conquering.” Does that mean that hyphenophobia is more than just conquering? Or should it be “all-conquering,” meaning that hyphenophobia does not conquer all? I honestly don’t know what you’re saying.

    As for ad copy writers, I think they just don’t know how to use hyphens, much like a lot of other people. I notice a lot of hyphen omission in blogs, newspaper websites, etc.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    The recent discussion surrounding an article the BBC website (http://bbc.in/ptGQXK) suggests that poor use of language actually puts consumers off (contrary to what advertisers may believe), as they take it as a sign of incompetence. I suspect that the problem is that advertisers’ skills extend to message-building but not to accurate technical language usage.

  • Mark Nichol

    Oliver:

    Excellent point. In these posts, I occasionally make errors (the most recent I recall being notified about is typing principle instead of principle), but like many online writers, I don’t have an entire communications team ensuring that my product features impeccably written and edited copy.

    Your comment about message building is spot on; I have found that many writers have a remarkable talent for acquiring, researching, and telling the story, and their voice might also be distinctive, but their technical skills are lacking. Excellent writing is usually a team effort involving writer and editor(s).

  • Mark Nichol

    In my response to Oliver, my parenthesis should have read “the most recent I recall being notified about is typing principle instead of principal.” (Sigh.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Blankstein:

    Read my response to Oliver.

  • Danna Hernandez

    Good call! Now about apostrophes. . . !

  • Sean Lewis

    Hallelujah to this article on hyphenation! Proper hyphenation, I’ve preached to my co-workers for years, simply aids in quick and easy understanding of written expression. They absolutely serve a purpose and their slow fade from proper use is only a detriment to the effectiveness, in my opinion, of our written communications. It’s nice to run across others who know and understand this; I have to visit DWT more often! Thanks.

  • Ken

    I agree with Bob, in that most of the general population simply doesn’t know how to use hyphens. It’s because it’s a technical part of our language that most people don’t care to address.

    I would argue that the biggest hyphenohobia offender is song titles. It’s rare when you do see one.

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