Thursday, August 30, 2012

Everything you always wanted to know about how to use punctuation marks (but didn't know whom to ask)

There appears to be some confusion regarding the use of hyphens. For starters, many people are unsure about how a hyphen (-) is different from a dash (—). Next comes the question of when to employ a hyphen and when to choose a dash. (For more on dashes, read Ben Yagoda's enlightening column in The New York Times here.)


Many people are also stumped by what is known as suspensive hyphenation, in which two (or more) prefixes may be linked to one word, as in this example from a recent issue of DNA:

Nilanjana Roy is a cat-, cheel-, mouse- and mongoose-whisperer and this is the animals’ story, unhampered by human interference.

Here's another example of suspensive hyphenation from a Times of India report on the release in Bengaluru of Rajinikanth's film, Lingaa:
Bengaluru, where more than 10 theatres are screening the Rajinikanth-, Sonakshi Sinha- and Anushka Shetty-starrer, has had a long-time following for Rajini dating back to the 1980s, and his fans left no stone unturned in making sure their Thalaiva's (leader's) movie opened to a record gathering in most areas where their network is strong.

Earlier this month, V.R. Narayanaswami, who writes the fortnightly "Plain Speaking" column in Mint, dedicated his piece to the use of hyphens and gave us many examples from the European Union's English style guide. The hypen may have its detractors, Narayanaswami writes, but, and I agree with him, hyphens are not only useful but also essential if we want to make our meaning clear.

When we write "small business owner", are we referring to a small person who owns a business, when we mean a person who owns a small business? In which case, we must write "small-business owner". It is only the hyphen that removes all ambiguity in this case.

So, however much some young people would like to wish the hyphen away, it is here to stay.

In Narayanaswami's column, there is a reference also to "suspensive hyphenation":
An interesting use of the hyphen, not described in grammar books, is coordinate construction. If there is a phrase such as “heat-resistant and acid-resistant” in the sentence, the first-occurring “resistance” is dropped. So we get “heat- and acid-resistant”. Similarly, we have “water- and air-borne diseases”. These are also called suspended compounds. The structure is fairly common now in business writing and technical writing. 

Read the column in its entirety here: "Euro guide to the use of hyphens". 
  • Meanwhile, I am grateful to Commitscion Supriya Srivastav (Class of 2011), for posting on my Facebook wall a link to this hilarious yet very instructive "Word Crimes" video on YouTube:

So, did you learn something from watching that video? I sure hope so. :-)

UPDATE (November 1, 2012): Mark Nichol, editor of the Daily Writing Tips blog, answers reader queries about the hyphen here.

UPDATE (November 7, 2012): Mark Nichol responds to reader queries about another troublesome punctuation mark, the comma: "Answers to Questions About Commas". Also read: "Three Common Comma Errors" and "The Rationale for the Serial Comma".

UPDATE (February 12, 2013): Read all about the usage of apostrophes in this Mint column by V.R. Narayanaswami: "Aspects of the Apostrophe".

UPDATE (March 14, 2013): In one post, everything you need to know about punctuating a sentence. Check it out here.

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