When I decided to call my blog English-Language Thoughts, I paused after first seeing the title typed out. I knew of course that it was the correct title, but it didn’t seem so aesthetically pleasing with that little hyphen in there. It makes it asymmetrical, too heavy and clumped together on the left. English Language Thoughts would probably look much better.
And yet, I could never go with that, because it would be ambiguous. Would I be writing about thoughts about the English language, or thoughts from England that were about language in general?
Yes, I want to take about hyphens again.
Just a little bit.
The hyphen clarifies that the English language is a single concept in this case, and that my thoughts are about it. Of course, realistically, no-one would really get confused once they’d read the title. And yet, without the hyphen we don’t know the meaning of the phrase until after the word thoughts, and therefore our reading rhythm might be off. After reading the word English, we might be expecting one noun that we’re describing as English, and then hit a frustrating bump when we meet two nouns and realise we’re in compound-noun territory. The hyphen means that we read English-language with the rhythm of one word, rather than two. You might decide that in this case the hyphen isn’t really important and that at least my meaning is understood, but its presence makes for a much smoother, flowing reading experience.
In general then, it’s preferable to use a hyphen to join the first two words of a three-word or more compound noun. When we say a two-week holiday, we know that two weeks is a single concept that describes how long the holiday is.
Sometimes the hyphen is necessary to make meaning clear.
We usually go on five day trips in the summer. Do we go on five different day trips throughout the summer, or do we go on an unspecified number of trips that each last for five days? Without the hyphen, the meaning is the former, but with a hyphen (five-day trips) it’s the latter.
A small pet shop is what you probably think it is: a pet shop that isn’t large. But if you have a medium-sized pet shop that specialises in selling pets like hamsters, guinea pigs and goldfish, then you’d better make it clear that you’re running a small-pet shop, lest too many people wander in looking for St. Bernards or labradors.
Equally, there’s a big difference between a charming telescope (a nice looking glass) and a beautiful wine flute (a nice-looking glass).
You can find another good example of confusion here. (1)
Some might consider pointing out such distinctions as pedantic, and say that they’re not important as long as someone’s meaning is fairly clear.
I can understand that, but why should someone settle for their meaning being fairly clear when they use their native tongue? Little things like hyphens allow us to enrich our language, be precise, and make the reading/listening experience smoother for others. Whatever our language, we all have an amazing array of tools at our disposal to communicate effectively. While it might not always be necessary to be extremely precise in our use of punctuation and grammar, it can be worth the effort when we make it easy for someone to understand us, or even better—when we create something that gives someone pleasure, and we stroll over the line between language and art.