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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Small object of grammatical desire
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Woman jumps over a man
Leapfrog has lost its hyphen
It's small. It's flat. It's black. And according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, its numbers are shrinking. Welcome to the world of the hyphen.

Having been around since at least the birth of printing, the hyphen is apparently enjoying a difficult time at the moment.

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.

Fig leaf
Hobby horse
Ice cream
Pin money
Pot belly
Test tube

The blame, as is so often the case, has been put at least in part on electronic communication. In our time-poor lifestyles, dominated by the dashed-off [or should that be dashed off or dashedoff] e-mail, we no longer have time to reach over to the hyphen key.

And English, being a language lacking any kind of governing body and instead relying on studies of usage, is changing to keep up.

Shorter OED editor Angus Stevenson doesn't want anybody to get angry over the hyphen's decline.

"We only reflect what people in general are reading. We have been tracking this for some time and we've been finding the hyphen is used less and less," he says.


"It will probably upset a few people but the point I would make is that we are only reflecting widespread everyday use. We are not saying it should be dropped completely."

Geoffrey Leech, emeritus professor of linguistics and English language at Lancaster University, agrees that there has been some decline in its use.

Data drawn from a wide range of publications taken in 1961 and 1991 suggested a 5% decline in hyphen usage over the three decades. He 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."

Professor Scott E Fahlmann, named as inventor of the computer smiley, which features a hyphen or dash
The hyphen still has its uses
Chris Robinson, who edits for Scottish Language Dictionaries and gives classes in advanced writing at the University of Edinburgh, says she has bigger grammatical fish to fry, with undergraduates often needing an explanation as to the difference between a noun and a verb and where to place a full stop.

"I tell my writing classes the hyphen is there to help the reader and to show either that two words are linked in some significant way or to add understanding in words like go-between and de-icing," she says.

"Language is always changing. It has to move with the times. There have to be conventions. There has to be a negotiated common ground but within that there's room for variation and a degree of creativity."

One battleground is the word e-mail itself. The likes of the BBC and the New York Times are fighting a valiant defence of the hyphen. But to much of the rest of the world, it's email.

With the hyphen, Mr Stevenson notes: "It's starting to look a lot like something your grandmother might write."

A selection of your comments appears below.

Ian, Burton-on-Trent, Staffs.

The use of a hyphen to yoke two nouns has declined because, quite simply, it usually isn't necessary. One knows through common sense that a walking stick, which used to be walking-stick, is a stick for walking (a verbal noun + a noun) rather than a stick that walks (a participial adj. + a noun).

Indeed, it is a mistake to make a fuss about punctuation unless clarity or actual meaning is at stake. As the house-style guide of Oxford University Press used to say, "If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad."
Hugh Payne, York, England

The rot set in when people stopped writing to-day and to-morrow.
roland, london, uk

Not true. The hyphen has been re-invented as a substitute for punctuation - the colon, semi-colon and even brackets have all but disappeared. When reading off a screen, it is difficult to see these punctuation marks. It is much more userfriendly to insert a hyphen - or as purists might say, a dash - to highlight the break-up of a sentence into clauses.

If one has a spellchecker in constant back-ground use, it will not recognise these portmanteau words, and will underline them as you go.
sweetalkinguy, bourne, lincolnshire

The whole point of writing is to convey meaning to others. Writing that conveys the author's meaning clearly, quickly and accurately is more effective than writing that does not. English spelling and grammar are not rigid - they are simply guidelines for mutual understanding.

New compound phrases are always being created, first as separate words. As the phrases becomes more widely-used, authors start to hyphenate them. Then, when they have become common-place, the hyphens are dropped. Perhaps nowadays authors often miss out the second step in this evolutionary process of word creation.
Mark Gleeson, Pinner, UK

I'm incensed that the word ice cream is two words and that crybaby is one.... what were you thinking?!
Rose, derby, uk

Excepting 'logjam', all your 'now one word' examples have already been so for years in my dictionary. (It's a Collins and I'm chief sub ed. at a leading magazine publisher.) It's nice that the OED is catching up with usage (was anyone really writing 'chick-pea'?) but note that in compounds, two-worders will still need a hyphen: pot-bellied pig, ice-cream cone, test-tube baby. And let's not forget London Transport's lamentably unhyphenated promise to provide 'More late night buses'!
Stu Maddison, Ealing, London, GB

The OED does only reflect the usage of the language. If we aren't using hyphens then I guess the dictionary should reflect that. How far does this go though? The shop at our local university is currently advertising a sale on its 'stationary'! Surely if that's how the word is being used, the dictionary should say so! Perhaps the OED should install themselves as bastions of good English, rather than changing the language because its users don't know any better.
Brian, Hull

What about the use of hyphens in compound adjectives. Surely we can't do away with the hyphen in bramble-covered fence rail or five-year-old boy?
R Ghent, York, UK

It looks as if British English is matching American English here. Of all of your examples, none have had the hyphen in printed American English for a long time.
Steven, King George, Virginia, US

You might have mentioned American usage which seems often to join without a hyphen. One of my students came to me puzzled by an article I had suggested she read: What is a "nonnative" language? she asked.
Ormond Uren, London UK

It seems even the BBC is failing to keep the hyphen in all cases and I quote, "The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide."
Mik, Tokyo, Japan

Fair enough about the hyphen, but many people I know use 'should of' etc instead of 'should've'. Will this be deemed correct one day if enough people say it?

the next thing that needs to be done is to remove capitalisation. all leters should be written in small letters. it saves huge amount of time. most other non-romanic scripts do not have upper and lower case.
khairul hasan, camberley, uk

Isn't émail the French word for enamel? Do we want to communicate or coat things with a hard ceramic substance? The hyphen belongs in e-mail.
Jacques Bouvier, Hershey, USA

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