Small object of grammatical desire
Thread poster: xxxmediamatrix
xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 11:30
Spanish to English
+ ...
Sep 20, 2007

Extracts from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7004661.stm

The sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words, many of them two-word compound nouns. Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, pigeon-hole has finally achieved one word status as pigeonhole and leap-frog is feeling whole again as leapfrog.

Data drawn from a wide range of publications taken in 1961 and 1991 suggested a 5% decline in hyphen usage over the three decades. [Geoffrey Leech, emeritus professor of linguistics and English language at Lancaster University] thinks e-mails may be part of the answer.

"When you are sending e-mails, and you have to type pretty fast, on the whole it's easier to type without hyphens. Ordinary people are not very conscious of the fact of whether they are putting hyphens or not."



Over the years I've heard many lame excuses for sloppy writing, but this one is surely the most ridiculous!

MediaMatrix


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:30
English to Spanish
+ ...
Not at all Sep 21, 2007

It seems that compound words begin with hyphens and as they grow up they start to lose them. This process is similar in time to the development of the human from infancy to young adulthood.

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Spencer Allman
United Kingdom
Local time: 15:30
Finnish to English
E-mails Sep 21, 2007

I assume he means emails

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Peter Shortall  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:30
Member
French to English
+ ...
General trend Sep 21, 2007

I have noticed this trend too, i.e. towards hyphen loss. Interesting that the item you quote mentions "e-mail", since I heard on Countdown not so long ago that "e-mail" has now lost its hyphen in the dictionary they use (which I *think* is the Oxford Dictionary of English, but I'm not absolutely sure about that).

However, I think hyphens do serve a purpose in that they can often avoid ambiguity, especially in adjectives. It still irritates me whenever I see

sleeping pill

cf.

sleeping child

One crosslinguistic example I find interesting is the word "weekend", which lacks a hyphen in English now; yet in both French and Romanian, where it is a loanword, it does have one. I imagine this must be because the word was borrowed by the French at a time when the hyphen was still used in English, and although it later dropped out of English, the French kept it (and I'm guessing the Romanians borrowed it from the French).


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Mark Cole  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:30
Polish to English
+ ...
My gripe Sep 21, 2007

There does seem to be an increase in incorrect use of hyphens in verbs though. I've even noticed it in some publications ("sort-out" instead of "sort out", or "to cover-up" when it is used as a verb, for example - there are too many to cite here).

So I can't really agree with the argument that it's a matter of having to type fast. Could it be that the people who are using these gratuitous hyphens are merely compensating?

IMO it's not e(-)mails that is the cause of the loss of hyphens (because the hyphen is quite conveniently situated on the keyboard, unlike some other characters), so much as texting (which I've never come to terms with - it would take me a whole day to compose the above on a mobile phone : (


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Margreet Logmans  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 16:30
English to Dutch
+ ...
What's the logic? Sep 21, 2007

Maybe this is all clear to you, native speakers, but I don't see the logic.

Why 'fig leaf' and 'leapfrog' ? One gets split without a hyphen and the other is made into one word- what is the rule for this?

Just wondering....


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 20:00
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
It is more a celebration of the creative potential of languages Sep 21, 2007

Words losing hyphens and emerging in their unified avatars is to me an indication of the creative potential inherent in all languages.

What has happened is that most of these hyphenated words came about in the first place because they are expressing ideas for which no single word existed before. So they are in a way pioneers who are by definition rough and ungainly in the beginning but as the words gain currency and people begin to use them creatively and with confidence, the ideas represented by them become more established, people begin to accept these combinations as words in their own right and the hyphen gets sloughed off, for it has no real use. The hyphen, it must be remembered, was put there in the first place to improve clarity in the meaning of a word expressing a new and a bit hazy idea.

Taking the example of leap-frog, which conveys a meaning entirely different from the meaning of either leap or frog, has now become a verb in its own right, that is jump across without touching ground over something. When people started using this combination creatively and spawed sub-forms of it like leap-frogging, leap-forgged, etc., the word took a life of its own and shrugged off the hyphen.

That is how new words get born, and it is happening all the time. I don't think emails, internet or the mobile has anything to do with this; these have been around for only a decade or two, while languages live for thousands of years and it would be a mistake to assume that they are influenced critically by such technologies, which are in case used only by a fraction of the total number of people using languages.

The hyphen it seems to me is a tadpole stage in the life of a word, when it is new born and people are not quite familiar with its meaning, but as it gains currency and people begin to recognize the word and the idea represented by it, it emerges in its final hyphenless form.

This does not happen with all hyphenated words, but only with those that convey new meanings or usages, which is why fig leaf is two words, but leapfrog has graduated to the full word status, to answer Margreet's poser. So it also depends on the creativity of the users as well as of new situations which demand these words. If either of these factors are weak, then the tadpole stage may linger on or even become permanent.

Language never seems to amaze me with its subtelities.


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