The may-hem and the bed-lam caused by the hyphen

I have, you will no doubt recall, had need to question the pronunciation of the letter “W”. Not with regards to accuracy but with regards to length. You may recall my crazed, unreasonable and frenzied rant… er, I mean, my well argued and reasonable request that we get rid of the letter “W”. Or at least pronounce the letter “W” in a different way so that it doesn’t take up so much time – a perfectly reasonable idea, I am sure you will agree. And not the ravings of a madman. Really.

And so now I must turn my attention to something that, most times, takes no pronunciation at all – the hyphen. What an innocent looking object. The simplest of lines. How could this object infuriate any sane person? My problem with the hyphen is that it sometimes wants to come to the party and it sometimes wants to stay at home. I know that English is an everflowing and ever changing language. But it is also ever-flowing and ever changing.

Sometimes the hyphen turns up. Sometimes it just stays in bed and doesn’t bother.

In the very first paragraph of this wonderful piece of literature, I had to stop everything just to check whether “well argued” was really two words. It is. Mister Hyphen has decided not to call in this particular instance. You can be well-disposed to my words, and I might be well-adjusted enough to present a well-defined and well-balanced argument. Well-balanced, yes. Well-argued, no. Did Mister Hyphen get tired? Did he start hyphenating away at all the well phrases only to get bored and wander off?

And talking of that scamp of a letter, “W”, look it up in the dictionary and it’s “double-u“. Of course, it has a hyphen. But “double bass” doesn’t. You can double cross a double-dealing double agent carrying a double-barrelled shotgun. And you can also double-cross them – the amount of hyphenation depends on which dictionary you use.

The whole hyphen thing is a minefield. But not a “mine-field“. Okay. So if “minefield” is one word then surely “oilfield” is also one word? No, “oil field” is two separate words. Not “oil-field“. Or “oilfield“. So, to conclude, you can have a gold-filled goldmine or you can have an ill-fated oil filled oilfield.

Like to go  “bird-watching“? You can’t. You have to go “birdwatching“. That “time-honoured” pursuit is not hyphenated. At least, in the dictionary that I used.

And numbers? Who decided fifty-two needed a hyphen? Ridiculous.

Let me state my position openly. I am one of these annoying people who gets outraged by the misuse of an apostrophe. I try not to. Honest. I try not to say anything. Someone sends me an email where they explain various issues and talk of many interesting things. But if there’s an errant apostrophe, that’s all I can see. So if a tiny thing like an apostrophe gives me sleepless nights, how can I cope with the deviousness of the hyphen?

At least the apostrophe has rules. You can figure out if you need one. But the hyphen? No. Does what it wants when it wants. A true punctuational rebel.

Someone, somewhere once filled a shotgun full of hyphens and just blasted it into a dictionary. And just to add to the confusion, they did the same with different dictionaries just to make sure they didn’t all agree. It was probably a double-barrelled shotgun, by the way.

This obsession with hyphens could be said to be all consuming or it could be all-embracing. But no, no, Mr Allen, I hear you cry… without the hyphen how would we distinguish between the words like re-cover and recover? I might ask for my sofa to be re-covered and the re-coverer might be confused and think I need it recovering! No, I say! Such minor advantages are outweighed (out-weighed?) by the bedlam caused by the hyphen! Let’s have no more of this craziness! Expunge the hyphen! Redact it! Destroy it! I will allow it in surnames, otherwise my good friend Mister Bibbly-Huntingdon-Smythe might be upset. But that’s all. No more I say,

The whole thing gives me a head-ache. It’s may-hem, I tell you.


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