Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Joy of Hyphens

Dear Professor,

After reading your recent posts I went back to my blog and put in hyphens in my latest post. My only excuse is that, as a non-native speaker, sometimes I get confused. I want to thank you for putting me on your bloglist. I surely didn't expect it. When I was thinking of starting my own blog I said that in Italy it's dangerous to talk about lots of subjects. "What should I speak of, the joy of knitting?" The expression stuck.



Dear Joy,

You must be thinking of my little haiku-like poem,

Into desuetude
Falls the subjunctive mood
Along with the hyphen.

Your English is very good, and so for a long time I thought you might be an American expatriate. But then little indications surfaced, of the sort found in Oriana Fallaci's English, which suggested that you are Italian.

As for the hyphen in English, it appears to be being used more and more sparingly. I don't know whether this is good or bad. I just hope English doesn't go the way of German in which words like Kommunikationsbereitschaft and transzendentalphaenomenologish are perfectly acceptable.

I write 'truth-maker,' the Australian philosopher David Armstrong writes 'truthmaker.' I should think both are acceptable. I may insert hyphens against convention just to make the reader think harder. Thus I might break 'ontotheology' into 'onto-theo-logy' if I want the reader to wonder what being, God, and logic have to do with one another.

Please don't take my writing as a model of standard American English. Grammar and standard usage serve me, I don't serve them. I may go nonstandard for some subtle purpose. I just wrote 'nonstandard' without a hyphen. Why? So as not to impede the flow of the sentence. I may drop a comma for the same purpose. This infuriates editors who are hung up on that species of consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds. One beauty of a blog is the freedom from editors. I liken them to testosterone-crazed male cats who like to mark their territory, their territory being your manuscript.

'So as not to impede the flow of the sentence.' That is a sentence-fragment. Generally speaking, they ought to be avoided. But one would have to be a schoolmarm in a very tight corset indeed to demand that they always be avoided. Above, the fragment works very well.

Note that I wrote 'sentence-fragment' with a hypen. I did so because 'sentencefragment' is Teutonically ugly. How does one decide in a given case? One uses one's good judgment. It is good judgment that keeps us from writing 'impact' instead of 'affect.' The same good judgment makes us refrain from employing such trendy redundancies as 'on the ground' and such ridiculous substitutions as 'issue' for 'problem.'

The foregoing examples have more to do with taste and usage than with logic. To speak of marital issues rather than marital problems offends my sensibilities, but it is not illogical. But to confuse the subjunctive and indicative moods rides roughshod over a logical distinction, something that logic-choppers like me don't like. Compare:

1. If Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, then someone else did.

2. If Shakespeare had not written Hamlet, someone else would have.

(1) is an indicative conditional, and is true, while (2) is a subjunctive conditional, and is false. It follows that they differ in meaning.

As for my blogroll, you have been on it since last summer. Did you just notice? I enjoy reading your posts, and I encourage you to keep up the good work. Some people say that Communism is dead. Your blog provides evidence that it is alive and well.