Language Notes

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by Lionel E. Deimel

Some time ago, I wrote an essay explaining the role of commas in preventing the misreading of sentences. I now feel the need to make a similar argument about hyphens.

Bulletin insertMy motivation came in the form of a church bulletin insert. It carried the title “A Profile Building Conversation.” (See image at left.)

I could make no sense of the title until I read the body of the notice.

The text made it clear that a conversation was being announced and that the conversation is part of the process of writing a diocesan profile for the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. The profile is a document intended to communicate to potential episcopal candidates the nature of the diocese and the characteristics desired in its next bishop

Without a hyphen in the title, I initially read it as a profile (n.) building (v.) a conversation (n.), which, of course, made little sense. (One could perhaps imagine a context in which this interpretation did make sense, but it would be an odd context indeed.) Actually, the conversation referred to has profile-building as its purpose. Adding the hyphen clarifies that “profile-building” modifies “conversation.” That is the meaning the title was meant to convey.

A more common hyphen fault does not result in mistyping parts of speech but in misgrouping elements of a phrase. I recently encountered an example of this in a paper from The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage “factsheet” concerns “ranked choice voting.” Being familiar with this voting scheme, I read the paper to see what Heritage had to say and without much thought to the use of “ranked choice voting,” rather than “ranked-choice voting.” The hyphen is not only conventional, but is needed to clarify the phrase. “Ranked-choice” modifies “voting”; “ranked” does not modify “choice voting.”

Readers can, no doubt, think of other phrases for which a hyphen is needed to assure that the meaning be clear.

Apparently, scripts for TV commercials sometime make hyphen errors. A recent commercial I saw promoted a drug for (as I remember it) urinary-tract infections. The person reading the script, who surely did not have medical education, emphasized the word “tract.” That is, he read the phrase as “urinary tract-infections,” not as “urinary-tract infections.” I don’t think that medicine studies tract infections generally, rather than infections of particular tracts in the body.

— LED, 5/11/2023

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