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story.lead_photo.caption Brenda Looper

Of all the unbelievable things that happened last week, one really stood out to me as an editor, which leads me to make this statement: If you don't know the difference between a hyphen and apostrophe, hush up and learn something when a grammarian criticizes you.

The president last Friday, in the midst of dozens of tweets and retweets, posted: "To show you how dishonest the LameStream Media is, I used the word Liddle', not Liddle, in discribing Corrupt Congressman Liddle' Adam Schiff. Low ratings @CNN purposely took the hyphen out and said I spelled the word little wrong. A small but never ending situation with CNN!"

Really, do you want to die on the liddle' hill? Or give Merriam-Webster's snarky social-media team more material? (Please do that second one. I need entertainment. Always.)

First of all, while "liddle" is a word, it doesn't mean little or whatever else the president means when he uses it, with or without an apostrophe (not a hyphen). It's a surname, and the name of a rare genetic disorder (Liddle syndrome, named after Dr. Grant Liddle) that causes high blood pressure and abnormal kidney function, among other things.

Second, a hyphen is not an apostrophe, and vice versa. As Merriam-Webster (note the hyphen) tweeted, "For those looking up punctuation early on a Friday morning: A hyphen is a mark - used to divide or to compound words. An apostrophe is a mark ' used to indicate the omission of letters or figures." Others pointed out that "liddle" isn't missing anything (other than a correct spelling), so it's a mystery why an apostrophe at the end would be needed. It's not as if it was "li'l," which does need an apostrophe.

Third ... just buy a dictionary, please, and learn how to spell "describing." Seriously. I'm getting a headache here.

Hyphens, tiny punctuation that they are, have recently created an outsize uproar among those using The Associated Press Stylebook, as AP first loosened its rules on hyphens in compound modifiers (first quarter touchdown), then walked back that change (first-quarter touchdown).

As I see it, I think AP just confused people by using that particular example because the advice on when to leave hyphens out--"if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen"--is sound.

That's been my rule for quite a while, though there are a few that are commonly recognized but remain hyphenated (brand-new, for example, as well as "self-" and other such compounds). In essence, if a compound modifier can't be misconstrued or misinterpreted by the average reader, it's OK to not use a hyphen."High school student" is unlikely to be misunderstood, but "two parent homes" might be. Yes, you'll still be dinged and stared down if you use a hyphen after an -ly adverb (no more newly-formed, people!).

And if you send out grammatically incoherent social-media posts lecturing others on grammar with multiple unhyphenated compound modifiers that should be hyphenated, you'll be dragged. A lot. And deserve it.

Some words with prefixes or suffixes still require hyphens if the intended meaning could be mistaken (such as re-create versus recreate, which mean different things), but many don't need them at all (socioeconomic, multimillion, cardiogram, etc.). Use of hyphens in words like teenager will pinpoint your age a little too accurately, so steer clear unless you want to be labeled an old coot (I'm shooting for "curmudgeon," personally).

As for those apostrophes, correct use of them will endear you to many a copy editor. Watch the steam pour out of ears when someone writes "veteran's" cemetery ... unless it's for one veteran only, it's incorrect. Form a plural using an apostrophe and you might just make some heads explode (the only exception, I would say, would be if the absence of an apostrophe would indicate another word--A's when talking about grades, rather than As).

But place that apostrophe where it should be in a possessive--especially a plural possessive--and, oh, you might just get a few marriage proposals. Make room for flowers and candy.

Maybe not the candy. I must inspect it first.

Words and grammar rules evolve over time, as I've noted many times. But some things will always be wrong, especially when it comes to hyphens. Using hyphens as commas or em or en dashes, or even semicolons or colons? Don't do it. Omit any of the hyphens in 70-year-old? Nope.

I can't think of anything that more illustrates the point that correct hyphen usage is essential to understanding the written word than an example I came across on the Critical Mess blog: "Yesterday we saw the dragon-slaying Prince" versus "yesterday we saw the dragon slaying Prince." Such unnecessary bloodshed for a rock legend, and all because of the lack of a hyphen.

Blogger Lauren Thurman commented: "Sadly, it is too late to save Prince (RIP Prince), but it is not too late to save the hyphen from falling into ill repute. Simply use hyphens the right way and no one else has to get hurt."

Preaching to the choir here, but ditto.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

Editorial on 10/02/2019

Print Headline: BRENDA LOOPER: Compound error


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