Hyphens Part I

Hyphens are the reason I almost didn’t become an editor. 

The problem was that hyphens seemed too confusing. I was sure I’d get yelled at for inserting a hyphen that turned out to be unnecessary. Or that I’d omit a hyphen that needed to be there.

The solution – of course – was to learn how to use hyphens. And that will be our topic in this post and another one later this week.

But first I have to tell you about a time when those fears came true. I was getting daily phone calls and office visits from colleagues complaining angrily about a hyphen I’d decided was unnecessary. (I hope your life is as interesting as mine sometimes is!)

I was a member of an editing team at the college where I used to teach. One of my responsibilities was to revise the college mission, which included our quest to become a world-class college.

Or were we trying to be a world class college?

I decided against the hyphen, for two reasons. The college had been using that mission statement for several years without the hyphen. More important, I think hyphens are ugly.

But here’s the thing. Neither of those reasons had anything to do with grammar. Luckily I had an ace in my pocket, ready to pull out when the complaints started coming. I had Googled “world class style sheet” and “world-class style sheet” to see if any other institutions had decided against the hyphen.

And here’s what I discovered: Yale University doesn’t use the hyphen either.

A couple of weeks ago I told the story to my writing group, and my friend Jane Brumbaugh came up with an explanation that I wish I’d thought of myself: Using  world class (rather than world-class) gives each word power that the hyphenated version does not. World and class each become powerful words.

I’m going to return to hyphens later this week. Right now I want to applaud Jane’s explanation. I think she’s hit on something hugely important.

When you want to be emphatic, your sentence needs to slow down. That means you’re careful not to clump words together. Consider omitting the hyphen (if you can get away with it).

And don’t pile too much information into a sentence. Compare these two versions:

Ben raced into the kitchen, shouting “I won the blue ribbon!”

Ben raced into the kitchen. “I won the blue ribbon!” he shouted.  BETTER

We’ll return to hyphens soon!

The words "world class"

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