Today I came across the phrase zombie film maker (to describe someone who makes zombie films) somewhere online. I don’t really remember where now, but that’s not important. What struck me about this fabulous phrase was that it was crying out for some punctuation! Before I go any further, I want you to think about how it should be punctuated. Should it be:
You might know, especially if you’ve read one of my previous blog posts about hyphens. Suffice it to say, only one of them correctly refers to a maker of zombie films (and I suspect the original writer of zombie film maker avoided using a hyphen as they weren’t sure where to put it). After seeing the phrase, I was curious, and googled it to see how often people used a hyphen when using the phrase, and if they were using it correctly. As I’d guessed, I found both, though zombie film-maker seemed slightly more common. Here are two examples of it being used both ways, both from Wales Online, and both from the same journalist!
So which is correct? The answer of course is…
What then is a zombie film-maker? Why that would be a zombie who makes films. A film-maker who is a zombie. Which you’d imagine would be something of a hindrance in Hollywood.
When we join two words together with a hyphen, we unify them into a single concept. So with zombie-film maker, we’re thinking specifically of zombie films, and the person who makes them. With zombie film-maker, we’re thinking of a film-maker who’s a zombie.
To give a more everyday example: an English-language teacher is a teacher of the English language, whereas an English language-teacher is an English person who teaches a language, though we don’t specify which language.
The funniest thing about this whole affair is of course the fact that the word filmmaker is not normally hyphenated, so you could legitimately use the phrase zombie filmmaker to refer to either a maker of zombie films, or a filmmaker who’s a zombie. Ah, I do love the vagaries of this language!