Jump-Starts and Start-Ups

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A reference to the name of a law called the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act
pointed out to me how easily confusion is created in writers’ minds by varying treatment of hyphenated terms.

The verb phrase jump-start, which originated in the 1970s as a slang term referring to the action of reenergizing the dead battery in a vehicle with a working battery in another by using cables to connect the two and create an electrical circuit, is hyphenated to distinguish it from the noun phrase “jump start”; this treatment is used in other verb phrases such as double-check, drip-dry, and hard-boil.

However, many people treat both the verb phrase and the noun phrase as a closed compound: jumpstart—an understandable error, considering that style guides and writing manuals are curiously unhelpful about the topic. Dictionaries have an entry for the verb phrase, but few people, including those responsible for naming this law, bother to check. As a result, it is perhaps inevitable that jumpstart (and doublecheck, dripdry, and hardboil) will become the standard treatment.

The name of the law also commits an error in its treatment of start-up. Again, such an error isn’t surprising. Yes, startup looks more likely to be pronounced “star tup” than “start up,” so the hyphen is helpful, but why, then, do we spell breakup (“brea kup”?) and makeup (“ma keup”?) without hyphens, yet shake-up is hyphenated? In the long run, such questions are moot: Before long, as with the clamped-together verbs mentioned in the previous paragraph, start-up and shake-up will likely, like breakup and makeup before them, lose their hyphens.

Is that a bad thing? Such evolution is common in English: Many originally hyphenated compound nouns, such as to-day and black-bird, and nouns with prefixes, such as anti-matter, lost their hyphens along the way. Writers are increasingly omitting the hyphen from mind-set and closing it, as well as omitting the hyphen from light-year and leaving it open or closing it.

What’s a careful writer to do in the midst of such evolution? Don’t contribute to the confusion: Always consult a reputable source such as a dictionary or a style guide, and use the standard treatment. But, you may protest, do I have to look up every word before I write it? No, but as I used to half-jokingly tell my students when I taught editing, if you’re not absolutely sure you’ve treated (or used) a word correctly, pretend that to err is a capital offense, and act accordingly.

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1 thought on “Jump-Starts and Start-Ups”

  1. E-mail vs. email. Although the former is considered technically correct, the latter seems to have prevailed. I confess to having virtually succumbed to the non-hyphenated version.

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