Don’t Be Afraid of Multiple Hyphens

Hyphens are very helpful in sorting out a sentence so that it’s easy to understand the first time through (and remember that the first time through is all you’re likely to get from your readers).

Resource intensive features such as stats tracking…

is much easier to read if you add a hyphen:

Resource-intensive features such as stats tracking…

Now it’s obvious that “resource-intensive” goes together as one adjective modifying “features.” The rules for using hyphens this way are not difficult, and the Editor will give you a brief summary soon.

Meanwhile, though, what happens if you need to modify the modifier?

Server resource-intensive features such as stats tracking…

It’s a common style rule that there should not be multiple hyphens in a row. It’s also a bad style rule, because quite clearly we need two hyphens in a row here.

Server-resource-intensive features such as stats tracking…

“Server-resource-intensive” is all one modifier for “features.” And of the three parts of that one modifier, the two most closely related are “server-resource.” The single hyphen, though, makes a group out of “resource-intensive” and leaves “server” off by itself, sulking in the corner.

If your editor insists that you may not use two hyphens in a row, then the answer is to rewrite the sentence. In doing so, you may discover that there is an even clearer way to say what you mean.

Features that use a lot of server resources, such as stats tracking,…

Hyphens

Take a look at this sentence from a Wikipedia article:

Another challenge is preserving resource forks when transmitting files using non-resource fork-aware applications.

If you know something about Macintosh operating systems, you may have correctly guessed that the sentence is actually talking about the resource fork, that part of a Macintosh file that holds information about how the operating system is supposed to manipulate it. But the last half of the sentence seems to be talking about “fork-aware applications,” which sound like something you might use in the food-service industry.

The problem is that hyphens link words together, whereas spaces keep them apart. In the phrase “non-resource fork-aware,” the words that should be most closely linked are “resource fork.” But the hyphens make us read the words as two units separated by a space: “non-resource” and “fork-aware.”

To keep the words in their current order, we’d have to add another hyphen: “non-resource-fork-aware applications.”

But a long string of hyphens like that should be a warning to us. Too many nouns have been stacked one on top of another, and the sentence needs some sorting out. Here’s a better way to say the same thing:

Another challenge is preserving resource forks when transmitting files using applications that do not recognize the resource fork.

Yes, it’s slightly longer. But in this case more words make shorter reading. The intellectual work of sorting out the nouns has been done for us, so we don’t have to pause and do it ourselves.

Wisdom from the Keyboard

There was a certain wisdom in the standard typewriter keyboard that lacked an exclamation point. Yes, you could make one (apostrophe, backspace, period), but it was three times as much effort as other punctuation marks.

Learn the wisdom of the typewriter keyboard, and think three times before writing an exclamation point.

While you’re at it, you might learn an extra nugget of wisdom from this Monarch Pioneer, which also lacks a semicolon.

Punctuation Matters

From Humphrey’s Manual of Type-Writing, printed in 1886, an excellent example of why punctuation matters:

The New York City Police Relief Fund Bill, passed by the State Legislature in 1885, has just been declared unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals, on the ground that a comma inserted between certain words rendered the act void. Since the passage of the act and the discovery of the mistake, seventy thousand five hundred dollars have been deducted from the pay of the police, which cannot be used until an amendment is passed authorizing the removal of the objectionable comma.

It’s not just being fussy to insist that we should punctuate our writing well. Punctuation changes the meaning of a sentence, and those changes in meaning can have serious consequences. They may not always be as serious as in this example, but do you want to risk it?

Pay attention to punctuation. If you don’t have a natural sense for punctuation yourself, look for help. One of the best ways you can get help is to ask people to read what you’ve written and see if they can summarize your message. If they get the wrong idea, you’ve got problems. And exactly what wrong idea they got may tell you where your punctuation is leading them astray.

Apostrophes

Apostrophes have two uses in ordinary English:

1. To show that letters are left out.

2. To mark a possessive.

The second is actually a special case of the first, as the Editor will explain if you make it all the way to the end of this article.

Apostrophes seem not to be taught very well in our schools. The rules are not very hard, but more writers trip over apostrophes than over any other mark on the page.

So let’s take these two cases one at a time:

1. Letters left out.

Sometimes we see apostrophes used in abbreviations to mark where letters are left out: “Int’l School of Punctuation,” for example, where “Int’l” is shortened from “International.” This style of abbreviation has mostly disappeared in current English.

Contractions are where we most often see the apostrophe for something left out. A contraction is a word made by shortening two words and shoving them together:

It is a beautiful day.
It’s a beautiful day.

You are wrong about that.
You’re wrong about that.

Let us take these two cases one at a time.
Let’s take these two cases one at a time.

I will not be long.
I won’t be long.

As you can see from the last example, sometimes more than just leaving out letters happens when words are contracted. It takes a vowel change, too, to get from “will not” to “won’t.” But the apostrophe’s job is simply to mark where letters have dropped out.

2. Possessives.

The English possessive case uses an apostrophe and an s to show that something belongs to someone:

This book belongs to Bertha.
This is Bertha’s book.

This proviso belongs to Wilmot.
This is Wilmot’s proviso.

That’s how we do it in the singular, when the owner is just one person or thing. In a plural that already ends in s, we just add an apostrophe:

This house belongs to the Johnsons.
This is the Johnsons’ house.

So far everything is easy. Now come some minor complications.

A plural that doesn’t end in s gets the full apostrophe-s treatment, just like the singular:

This room belongs to the children.
This is the children’s room.

That’s not too hard. But what about when a singular ends in an s, like the name Higgins? Here, the Editor regrets to tell you, anarchy reigns, and there is no set rule.

This car belongs to Higgins.
This is Higgins’s car.
This is Higgins’ car.

Either Higgins’s or Higgins’ is correct, depending on the house style of the publication you’re writing for.

At one extreme, some styles specify that every s or z sound takes only an apostrophe in the possessive:

This crayon belongs to Pertinax.
This is Pertinax’ crayon.

Isaiah was the son of Amoz.
Isaiah was Amoz’ son.

At the other extreme, some styles specify that every singular noun takes an apostrophe and an s:

This cloak belongs to Demosthenes.
This is Demosthenes’s cloak.

There are all sorts of compromises between those two extremes. Learn your house style. If you’re responsible for setting your house style, have fun—just be consistent.

Finally, two rules give people far more trouble with apostrophes than they should, because they’re both flat-out simple rules:

1. There are no apostrophes in possessive pronouns.

This book has lost its cover (not it’s cover).

I think you’ve lost your mind (not you’re mind).

2. There are no apostrophes in plurals.

I found three radios (not radio’s).

This house belongs to the Johnsons (not Johnson’s).

You could stop reading now, but if you’re curious, here’s the explanation we promised at the beginning. It’s a bit of etymology, the science of word histories.

We mentioned earlier that there were two reasons for apostrophes: to show that something is left out, and to mark a possessive. The second is really just a special case of the first. In Middle English, the possessive case was commonly marked by the ending -es or -is. The e or i dropped out, and the apostrophe marks where it used to be. “For Goddes love” in Chaucer is “For God’s love” in modern English; “The Milleres Tale” is “The Miller’s Tale.” Now that you know that, the rule for apostrophes in English is even simpler: Apostrophes mark where letters have dropped out.

Parentheses: A Warning Sign

Here’s an interesting use of parentheses:

Create an entire website, maintain your content using easy-to-use templates and content files, even build your own weblog (blog) using freely available layout templates!

Why did the writer put the word “blog” in parentheses? Obviously because he thought the word “weblog” needed to be explained. Most people know weblogs as “blogs,” and probably fewer than half the people who regularly use the word “blog” know that it’s short for “weblog.” Where do the other half think the word “blog” came from? Who knows? Perhaps they think it’s the sound you make as you vomit a stream of ill-considered remarks into the Internet.

At any rate, the writer had a good instinct here: far more people know what “blog” means than know what “weblog” means. His mistake was in not asking himself one more question: Why am I using the word “weblog” in the first place?

Our example would have been far better this way:

Create an entire website, maintain your content using easy-to-use templates and content files, even build your own blog using freely available layout templates!

Now there’s no parenthetical remark to stop us dead in our tracks and make us wonder what the writer was thinking.

When you have to explain something in parentheses, take that as a warning sign. If what you’ve put in the parentheses is simply a clearer restatement of what you wrote outside them, then you need to reconsider what you’ve written. Rewrite it the way we just rewrote our example, promoting the parenthetical remark to the main body of the text, and eliminating the obscurity it explained.

No Apostrophe for the Steelers

“A Perplexed Steelers’s Fanatic” writes:

I recently received an email from a friend with the title, “The Lord Loves a Steelers’ Fan.” Putting aside what jersey can be found in the Lord’s heavenly chifforobe, in my role as a deputized member of the Apostrophe Posse I threw a flag on the field. Is that apostrophe required, or should we have conserved it for the many other orphaned instances visible in our daily lives? And can you expound on this topic generally?

The apostrophe should not be there, because “Steelers” isn’t possessive. It’s just a proper noun used as an adjective modifying “fan.”

Probably the easiest way for most people to see why the apostrophe shouldn’t be there is to substitute another term for “Steelers.” If you’re a fan of Beethoven, do you say “I’m a Beethoven’s fan”? No; you say, “I’m a Beethoven fan.” In the same way, if you’re a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, you say “I’m a Crimson Tide fan.” No apostrophe for Beethoven, no apostrophe for Crimson Tide, and no apostrophe for Steelers.

You do use the apostrophe when it’s really possessive: “I’m Beethoven’s biggest fan,” “I’m the Steelers’ biggest fan.”

Apostrophes give people more trouble than any other punctuation mark. The rules aren’t really all that complicated, and we’ll try to give the most important ones in an article coming up soon.