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Hyphen cutbacks

While rumours of its demise may be exaggerated or at least premature, about 16,000 hyphens have been eliminated in the new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a scaled-down version of the 20-volume OED, The New York Times reports.

With the dispatch of a waiter flicking away flyspecks, the editor, Angus Stevenson, eliminated some 16,000 hyphens from the sixth edition, published last month. “People are not confident about using hyphens anymore,” he said. “They’re not really sure what they’re for.”

The dictionary is not dropping all hyphens. The ones in certain compounds remain (“well-being,” for example), as do those indicating a word break at the right-hand margin — the use for which this versatile little punctuation mark, a variation on the slash, the all-purpose medieval punctuation, was invented in the first place.

What’s getting the heave are most hyphens linking the halves of a compound noun. Some, like “ice cream,” “fig leaf,” “hobby horse” and “water bed,” have been fractured into two words, while many others, like “bumblebee,” “crybaby” and “pigeonhole,” have been squeezed into one.

Some readers may be more sentimental or even militant about the hyphen cutbacks. This Quillblogger doesn’t object to a reduced workload for the hyphen, a semi-retirement for an elder of punctuation, as long as we can still call upon it when it is really required. The popularity of two-surname families and hyphenated offspring alone should be enough to ensure the mark’s continued survival in this century. But could that be the rumblings of discontent among sticklers I hear in the distance?