Hyphenation in Compound Nouns
I was reading the jacket copy for Garner’s Modern American Usage, the successor to the similarly titled classic reference work by H.W. Fowler, when I found what I felt to be an ironic instance: an error. The book’s description refers to its attention to “questions . . . of word-choice.”
Whenever I see hyphenated compound nouns such as this, I feel as if I’m being whisked in a time machine to a bygone era in which hyphenation of word pairs was rampant: to-day, co-operate, tea-cup, and so on. Why on earth, I thought, did the copywriter think that word-choice merits hyphenation?
Continuing to read the copy, I stumbled once again, while reading a reference to “language-lovers of all persuasions.” By this time, I thought it unfortunate that a book that purports (with eminent justification) to be a trusted authority on proper usage should have two superfluous hyphens in the jacket copy.
Authors are usually given the opportunity to proof their books, and occasionally have a chance to weigh in on the cover art, but rarely, if ever, do they get to see jacket copy before publication. I wondered whether Garner had noticed these errors when he received his first copy.
Minutes later, I was reading an entry, and I noticed the second error repeated therein: “The word denotes a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur.” This time — assuming the author, while reading the proof, had not overlooked a copy editor’s erroneous insertion — the culprit was Garner himself. Only then did I realize I had fallen into a trap that the English language often lays for the erudite and the inexperienced alike: the expectation that it will be consistent.
The hyphenation of word-choice is unequivocally wrong, but who is to say that Garner and the jacket-copy writer erred with language-lover? Many writers insert a hyphen in “decision making,” “problem solving,” and the like, though such treatment is justified only when the compound modifies a following noun (“decision-making apparatus,” “problem-solving skills”). However, similar noun+verb compounds, like eye-opener, are valid.
The final arbiter of how a word is treated is a dictionary — or, if a publication for some reason prefers an alternate form, a published style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style or a house, or internal, style guide compiled by one or more editors of that publication. In the case of language-lover, the term does not appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, nor does it grace Chicago’s pages.
I don’t know whether the house style guide of the Oxford University Press, which published Garner’s book, covers this point, but now I know why, in that work, a hyphen appears in language-lover: It was published in the United Kingdom, whose form of English (the oldest among nations where English is widely spoken, though that doesn’t make it the definitive form) has only recently begun to veer from favoring such constructions.
An online search for “language lover” yields one hyphen-free usage after another, which confirms my opinion that in American English, at least, the hyphen is extraneous. And a writer’s rule of thumb is that if a term has not made its way into a dictionary, use a corollary form (would you hyphenate “cat lover” or “coffee lover”?) or, in the absence of a similar term, use the simplest possible construction.
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