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.