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Factors in hyphenation

Posted by Henry on May 14, 2003

In Reply to: Factors in hyphenation posted by R. Berg on May 14, 2003

: : : : : : : "Coal-mine subsidence means the collapse of an underground coal mine resulting in damage to a surface structure."

: : : : : : : I made "coal mine" (the noun) two words because that's the way the United Mine Workers do it. I hyphenated "coal-mine" (the adjective) using the compound modifier rule in the AP Stylebook. Am I right or wrong?

: : : : : : It's certainly the way I would have done it - so we're either both right, or ....

: : : : : I think we're right. I have some engineers editing my copy (heaven help me).

: : : : Pairs of nouns like coal and mine usually have a relationship which evolves with time. As they get closer, they are joined together by a hyphen. If the relationship endures, they combine to form a single compound word.

: : : : As there is no formal announcement of a change in status, there may well be differing opinions on the relationship of two words at a particular time, a conservative one representing the past and a more progressive one representing the future. Rather than describe your spelling as right or wrong, it may be better to describe it as conservative or progressive.

: : : : In either case, it is better to be consistent throughout your piece. I don't understand why you define coal-mine as an adjective.

: : : She didn't define it as an adjective. In the sample sentence, "coal mine" appears first in adjectival use, where it's properly hyphenated, and later in nounal use, where it's properly not hyphenated. Consistency doesn't mean hyphenating a compound every time (or not hyphenating it every time) regardless of how the compound functions in the structure of the sentence.

: : I see now! There are two separate issues here.

: : As I understand the adjectival use of adverbs, a man who had read well would be a well-read man.

: : Compound nouns are trickier. Looking under pit in the 1976 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary, I find pit pony, pit-head and pitman. This hardly appears consistent.

: : Under coal, I see coal gas, coal-mine and coalfield. Whilst I would rely on the United Mine Workers to know standard procedure in a mine, I would rather turn to a dictionary to learn standard spelling. If the enquirer adopted coal-mine for the noun, the adjectival use would naturally be the same.

: : Later editions of the dictionary swept many hyphens away, demonstrating that usage changes with time. However, there may be good reason why some nouns do not grow closer together. Thus department store may remain as two words as a single compound noun would be so long. Pit-head may retain its hyphen to show that the t and h are separate rather than united in th.

: There seem to be even more than two issues. One, as you note, is that some compounds fuse over time. "Bell boy" became "bell-boy" and then "bellboy." Another is international differences. The U.S. form is "coal mine" as a compound noun, not "coal-mine," which is apparently the standard British form. Then there's the way the writer uses a compound. If it's used as a noun, no hyphen; if it's used as an adjective, hyphen. So "A hundred men work in the coal mine" but "The coal-mine workers got a raise." That's no more inconsistent than capitalizing the initial of a word when it begins a sentence but not otherwise.

It's interesting to discuss differences and problems here and try to resolve them. In practice, it is often simpler to re-phrase a sentence to avoid any controversy, especially if the person who will mark your paper may disagree with your construction. I would therefore advise against using split infinitives in some situations, not because they are incorrect, which they are not, but because there are some unenlightened people who hold an obsessive belief that split infinitves are the worst grammatical error that can be committed!