The Hyphenator: Always and Every Time

By Cathy Hodson

“An editor edits above all to communicate to readers, and least of all to address the sensibilities of editorial colleagues….But self-serving, retentive, fastidious, fetishistic, and even some aesthetic and ethical types of compulsiveness have no place in mass communications under deadlines; they must be purged from new staff members for the sake of the staff’s longevity in the field.”

I cannot begin to tell you how much relief I felt after reading the above paragraph in Arthur Plotnik’s The Elements of Editing, A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists. I first read it in the mid-1990s, when I had just left the employ of a most fastidious and retentive editor. He was The Hyphenator. Happily, nay, gleefully, commanding his staff of editors that they must use a hyphen at every turn. Anywhere it was possible to use a hyphen, hyphenate we must.

He wasn’t a bad guy, he was actually a good friend and a terrific person. He also wasn’t some old cranky guy who had formed persnickety ideas about grammar and usage after centuries of editing. He was young (we were both in our early 30s), but he had definite ideas of what he liked and didn’t like in editorial content. Hyphens he liked.

So much so that I told him when I left his staff, that the best part of leaving was I would never have to hyphenate something ever again if I didn’t want to. I was positive that no one else in the world could be quite as attached to the hyphen as my boss was. So far this has held true.

While The Hyphenator believed that the hyphen fostered communication (and sometimes it does), I believe that too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. As Arthur Plotnik says above, the editor edits to communicate to readers, to facilitate the ideas and thoughts being conveyed, and not to appease an editor’s punctuation fetish.

Grudgingly I must admit that I learned a great deal from this editor. Not only about the placement of hyphens, but so many other things important to being an editor. Sadly, although only six months older than me, he left this world about 10 years or so ago after a valiant fight with a most debilitating disease. And while I miss his friendship and I am grateful for all he taught me, I still do not miss injecting hyphens everywhere they must go.

Editors all, we have our favorite things to look for during proofreading. Is it the hyphen? Is it the comma? Is it a split infinitive? A dangling modifier? What are your editorial pet peeves?


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