April 29, 2010

Geek Heaven

Yesterday, I had a long-running conversation with someone about the hyphenation of adjective phrases before a noun. Oh, my writer/editor geek was just wallowing in the mud of hog heaven. I deliciously reacquainted myself with The Chicago Manual of Style (14th Edition) Sections 6.38 through 6.40 and avidly perused Table 6.1.

I had had the general rule in my mind (less is more, only hyphenate for clarity or according to a few guidelines, don’t hyphenate if the adjective phrase follows the noun), but I had forgotten the reasoning behind it. I rediscovered its simplicity, its elegance, and the clear and precise words that conveyed these ideas, and I quote:

For some years now, the trend in spelling compound words has been away from the use of hyphens. … A second helpful principle is this: When a temporary compound is used as an adjective before a noun, it is often hyphenated to avoid misleading the reader. … Formerly, adjectival compounds, except those beginning with an adverb ending in ly, were generally hyphenated before the noun they modified and open after the noun. The University of Chicago Press now takes the position that the hyphen may be omitted in all cases where there is little or no risk of ambiguity or hesitation.

Oooooooooh! Doesn’t the precision of the language just make you shivery all over?

Take the phrase fast sailing ship (CMS’s example). Is it a sailing ship that’s fast (in this case, no hyphen) or a ship that’s fast sailing (in this case, fast-sailing ship).

Table 6.1 has these fabulous descriptions of what to do if the adjective phrase consists of an adjective or participle plus a noun or an adverb plus a participle or adjective, each with great examples. But the phrases we were discussing were pulled from technical writing and were adjective phrases of noun plus noun referring to a noun ~ phrases like time structure map and reflection strength trace.

Some of the people we were talking with were scientists, so their considerations were more about how the meaning of the phrase was reflected in the punctuating mark. For example, does inserting a hyphen mean that each word is its own attribute to the noun or does it mean that they work together? Someone suggested using a forward slash. What does that mean when you insert a slash? Does it mean that the two things are opposite or the same thing? Does it mean that they are either/or?

As an aside, when I used to teach freshman comp and scientific and technical writing, I had a day where I talked about the meaning of a period and a comma and a semicolon as if they were road signs. Students seemed to understand and to dig it.

This discussion was why I returned to CMS. I knew that there was a grammatical reason for hyphenation relating to the function of the word in the sentence but I couldn’t explain it. I had to remind myself of the difference between a noun and an adjective. Wikipedia has a great entry under adjective about this:

In many languages, including English, it is possible for nouns to modify other nouns. Unlike adjectives, nouns acting as modifiers (called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts) are not predicative; a beautiful park is beautiful, but a car park is not "car". In English, the modifier often indicates origin ("Virginia reel"), purpose ("work clothes"), or semantic patient ("man eater"). However, it can generally indicate almost any semantic relationship.

So the test is to put the word after a to be verb: the [modifier] [noun] is [modifier]. So time and structure are both nouns because a time map is not time and a structure map is not structure. Likewise, a reflection trace is not reflection and a strength trace is not strength. But we could say that a strong trace is strong, and therefore strong is an adjective.

So, should time structure map and reflection strength trace be hyphenated? I first considered the rule that the simplest solution or least invasive is the best (the Occam’s Razor of grammar). So I think that time structure map is perfectly fine not to hyphenate. I tested this by asking: is it a structure map of time or a map of structure and time? It was the latter so it’s fine to leave the hyphen out.

The phrase reflection strength trace is a little different, I think. There is ambiguity there. Is it a strength trace of reflection? Or is it a trace of reflection strength? In the former case I think you’d use the phrase reflection strength trace ~ or if you really wanted to be clear, reflection strength-trace ~ and in the latter case you’d use reflection-strength trace.

What I’m Reading Today: I officially have a professional crush on Ian McEwan! He’s definitely in the pantheon of Virginia Woolf and Julian Barnes. I had read Saturday before and loved it, and now I gulped down On Chesil Beach in two nights. Oh, to be able to trace the motives and reactions of two people with such detailed and nuanced precision! To seem to be ruminating yet the reader is transfixed by the inexorable forward movement! On Chesil Beach (and probably a mild fever) gave me dreams that were both troubling and poignant.

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