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HD: Ranting About Hyphens
Posted: 13 December 2012 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 61 ]
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languagehat - 11 December 2012 08:11 AM

It’s not a “strange new rule,” it’s an old rule you hadn’t been aware of.  All of us are largely ignorant about almost everything, which is good, it keeps life interesting.

Indeed. But is it a rule as such? It may be in a book that some people seem to regard as a Bible, but a cursory look at the examples that Google Books throws up shows that most publishers disregard it.

I have had no answer to my question as to how comprehension would suffer if en dashes, em dashes and hyphens were replaced by a single mark. I expected none, given that their correct use according to the conventions of the day had already been speciously compared with standardised spelling.

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Posted: 13 December 2012 07:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 62 ]
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In another life I would gladly have been a lexicographer of trade terms and usages. I’ve always loved listening to people at their work environments use the jargon that is at the center of their daily lives. Here, by chance, the trade is editor, and the usage affects something we deal with every day: the written language. I’m sure if we all visited an ice cream manufacturer we’d be surprised at the number of terms the professionals use which no ordinary citizen could understand. This doesn’t affect one’s appreciation for ice cream. With language, however, we are all producers as well as consumers. A person is obliged to be conversant and up-to-date with the usage on both ends.

I certainly couldn’t define authoritatively how an en dash is used. I suspect that subconsciously I recognize various differences and might be disturbed if they disappeared; but I couldn’t reliably produce the convention on paper. I’m more of a consumer than producer of written language.

OTOH, I once did some repair work for a fairly successful publisher in Berkeley, CA. One of the editors started chatting with me and she began to vent on how much work it took to clean up (and re-write) the texts of their authors. It made me wonder if there is such a thing as an original work by one author. I bet she knew the dfference between an en dash and an em dash.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 01:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 63 ]
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I have had no answer to my question as to how comprehension would suffer if en dashes, em dashes and hyphens were replaced by a single mark. I expected none, given that their correct use according to the conventions of the day had already been speciously compared with standardised spelling.

Don’t hold your breath.  I’ve asked the same question two or three times in this thread and haven’t received an answer, either.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 64 ]
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Here you go.  There are plenty of examples there; I pick one at random:

conventional extract–treated group

This group wasn’t an extract-treated group that received some other conventional treatment that earned them the “conventional” label; they were treated with the conventional extract (of green tea or something or other), which can only be expressed with the en dash and not with the hyphen.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 09:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 65 ]
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OTOH, while using an en dash would resolve the potential ambiguity for those familiar with the en dash’s nuances, using it in place of a hyphen wouldn’t help those who lack such knowledge, and I would estimate that less than 1% of college-educated readers, let one a general reading audience, have enough familiarity with the en dash for the proper use of it to aid them in comprehension.  Of course, if the person(s) who decide whether your text ever sees the light of day are disproportionately likely to be amongst that 1%, it would certainly be wise counsel to do one’s best to comply with the dashed rules.

But, even in a formal context, I would probably rewrite the phrase as, “the group treated with conventional extract” or I would label each of the relevant groups (i.e., the control group and the variable group) and dispense with hyphenating and dashing.  I realize there are some situations in which “the group treated with conventional extract” would either be too cumbersome or it would not be a grammatical fit with the rest of the sentence, and in some cases “control group” or “group A” (or whatever) might not call enough attention to the fact that the group in question was treated with such extract.  But there are a wide variety of ways to restructure the phrase or sentence that would also avoid the ambiguity and if it was at all possible I would prefer to not have to trust the poor little en dash to bear such a weight.

And if I was writing in anything but the most formal of contexts I would probably favor “conventional-extract-treated group” over the en dash option, despite the fact that the former is undoubtedly “wrong,” because it would be easier, I think, for the vast majority of readers to follow.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 02:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 66 ]
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I was going to laugh all of this off as the last redoubt of true prescriptivism in English—until I learned that a war has been fought over such things.  The fact that there is still disagreement to this day over whether it should be called the Hyphen War or the Dash War serves to underscore the seriousness of the matter.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 02:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 67 ]
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Except that war seems to have been fought over whether to use the punctuation or not, not which to use.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 03:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 68 ]
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I know; that was tongue-in-cheek.  I was just amused at having learned about something called the Hyphen War while this discussion is going on.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 03:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 69 ]
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It seems that in certain cases there are potential ambiguities.

So then the question is how to resolve them. One way of doing it is by a consistent use of the hyphen and the em dash.

Theoretically. But there are problems with this.

Many readers won’t notice the distinction. This is apparent from the comments on the linked site, and for that matter those here.

More importantly, perhaps, given that not every publisher respects this distinction, is that even the observant reader won’t necessarily know whether, in any given case, the hyphen they see is a hyphen in this stricter sense, and not one where a different publisher would use an em dash.

With all these qualifications, the most sensible course would seem to be, as others have observed, to recast the sentence so that there is no ambiguity.

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Posted: 14 December 2012 04:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 70 ]
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Having clicked on LH’s link, I see that the specific solution I suggested for “fixing” “conventional extract-treated group” was firmly rejected as showing a profound lack of insight into biomedicine and the context in which such phrases are used in the relevant scientific literature.  “Group treated by conventional extract” is said to be more bulky and more confusing (than the en dash option).  I understand the point that it’s “bulky”, but am confused by the comment that the alternative suggested would be confusing, undoubtedly because it is absolutely true that I have no awareness of how such constructions are used in the scientific literature.  But my point was not to presume that I know how to “fix” a potentially confusing phrase in a scientific article, but that I’m not sure that the en dash fixes the problem unless your intended readership has mastered (or at least are journeypeople in using) the en dash.  If most readers of formal scientific literature DO understand the distinction between an en dash and a hyphen, then en dashing where appropriate is of course a perfectly proper solution.  If they don’t, it really isn’t much of a solution, although it may make the writer feel better for having at least tried to have offered the readers some guidance. 

I am an attorney who does a fair amount of legal writing, so I can, at least on a very general level, appreciate a scientist’s bristling at those who imagine they can fix scientific writing despite their near total ignorance of the subject.  To use an analogy, if somebody reviewed one of my briefs and suggested that I replace a reference to “de novo review” with a standard English phrase that meant the same thing, or if they suggested that I really needed either a hyphen or an en dash in there somewhere, I would snort (at least internally) in derision, since both “de novo” and “de novo review” are legal terms of art that have very well understood meanings (to those who practice law), and the intended audience of my brief (most likely one or more judges) would not be confused by either the terminology or the structure.  So, fair enough, I have no business telling scientists how to write scientific articles. 

But in a context in which one’s writing is formal but is aimed at a wide, general audience who do not necessarily have any particular expertise in any one field (but who, perhaps, can be expected to have a collegiate education and strong reading comprehension skills), I think the en dash is unlikely to save any phrase that is confusing when it is hyphenated - if it is too dense to decode when hyphenated, it will remain so when dashed, at least to the vast majority of one’s readers.

[ Edited: 14 December 2012 04:23 PM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 15 December 2012 06:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 71 ]
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I almost didn’t bother providing examples because I was morally certain that the “it’s all the same, why bother” folks would find ways to explain away even clear-cut examples where en dashes make an irrefutable difference, but I figured what the hell, there’s always the chance that someone would find it useful.  But if you prefer rewriting everything, in however clumsy and wordy a manner, to using a long-established convention that you happen not to like, that’s your prerogative.

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Posted: 15 December 2012 08:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 72 ]
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It’s not a matter of not liking it.  I actually think it offers an elegant solution as how to put together certain constructions and avoid both verbosity and ambiguity.  My point is that I think most readers, even quite educated ones, would have no idea of what the use of the en dash vs. the hyphen conveys.  And if they don’t understand the distinction then using the en dash doesn’t help them.  If my factual premise is wrong and most readers (or a group smaller than 50% but much higher than 1%) know enough about en-dashes and hyphens for the use of the right mark to help them then the en dash is certainly the perfect tool in certain circumstances.  If they don’t it isn’t, unless your writing is not aimed at a general audience, and your intended audience is disproportionately likely to know what an en dash is, in which case it is proper to use it.  And I can even imagine a situation where it is proper to use an en dash, even if you suspect that most of your readers have no clue what an en dash is, because the alternative of rewriting the sentence to avoid the open compound confusion would obscure an even more important point, and because using the en dash would help at least some of one’s readers (and, at least in theory, a reader who had no idea what an en dash was, but who was desperate to decode an otherwise baffling word pile ((with an unfamiliar little mark within it)) could look it up and work out the correct answer.*).  And if one’s intended publisher, or most potential publisher, expect writers to use it, a writer should of course use it.

*of course, they’d have to have a way of inferring what it is that they need to look up.

[ Edited: 15 December 2012 08:48 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 15 December 2012 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 73 ]
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My point is that I think most readers, even quite educated ones, would have no idea of what the use of the en dash vs. the hyphen conveys.  And if they don’t understand the distinction then using the en dash doesn’t help them.

But 1) the visual difference may help them decipher it unconsciously, even if they don’t consciously know anything about en dashes, and 2) even if it didn’t help the majority of readers, it doesn’t hurt them either, and if it helps a minority, it’s worth doing.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 04:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 74 ]
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Is it? That sounds like special pleading.

On the one hand, we have a few readers who may be helped. On the other, when these elite readers, accustomed to the distinction, read works published by institutions that don’t observe this distinction – which appear to be in the majority – they may erroneously believe, when they see a hyphen used where another publisher would use an em dash, that it only applies to the first element. So there may well be as much confusion caused by some publishers observing the distinction as is cleared up in other cases by them. No way of knowing.

None of this, of course, affects the fact that if you use an em dash with spaces – like this – or an en dash with no space—like this—it doesn’t provide any more clarity than if you used a hyphen - which of course is incorrect, but only because it’s deemed to be incorrect. It’s a typographical convention, nothing more.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 09:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 75 ]
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It is a typographic convention, and I suspect the main reason it seems like a “new” rule is that it’s an issue that only typesetters and professional proofreaders had to be aware of back in the days when authors wrote on typewriters, which offered only the hyphen (and double hyphen in lieu of a dash).  Computers have brought about two changes (among many others): more writers are preparing their compositions in final form, without the mediation of editors, typesetters, and proofreaders, and a fuller range of typography is available to the writers (if they knows the details of their systems).  I have a 1960s edition of Turabian’s Manual that is utterly silent on the issue of en-dashes vs em-dashes, there being no practical way for a typist to distinguish them. However, today’s more sophisticated tools require more sophisticated knowledge on the part of the users if they are to derive full benefit of the tools’ capacities and not just treat them as computerized typewriters.

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