Monday, December 07, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Those Ambiguous Compounds

Writers and editors alike dread one thing perhaps more than any other. Compound terms play the part of Scrooge in a writer's attempt for perfectly crafted sentences. No one wants the embarrassment of hyphenating two terms when it's unnecessary, or forgetting a hyphen when it's called for. To understand compound terms and how to approach them in writing, Chicago suggests going to the dictionary to see how terms are listed. It is also helpful to first know some definitions and the differences between compound terms.

Open compounds are spelled as two words (such as high school), hyphenated compounds are spelled with one or more hyphens (mass-produced), and closed or solid compounds are spelled as a single word (notebook). "With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (online to on-line or on line)."

Knowing when to hyphenate, if at all, can be tricky and tedious. Chicago has a rather lengthy guide to hyphenation; however, this guide illustrates general patterns, rather than hard-and-fast rules. So, with that freedom also comes lots of responsibility to choose the best type of compound term. In general, compound terms should be expressed logically and for enhanced readability, but many times hyphens are also used purely due to tradition.

No need to bog you down with a long list of rules for using and not using hyphens; the rules are not that clear. I'd rather hand you over to my trusty friends with all the answers, Webster and Chicago. But a golden rule in using hyphens is to question the readability and clarity of a compound term with or without a hyphen. If the meaning of a term is ambiguous without a hyphen (like the difference between recreation and re-creation), then don't hesitate to add the extra punctuation.

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