AP's how-to-use-hyphens-wisely guide causes consternation among pedants

English is a glorious syncretic mess of a language, what you get when you blend together a bunch of mispronounced German, French and Latin words and then salt with the vernacular of a hundred other languages, without having to heed stern pronouncements from an official language academy.

The grammar "rules" or "laws" you were taught in school are descriptive ("this is how people talk") not proscriptive ("this is how people should talk") but plenty of teachers and pedantic grammarians like to pretend that there is such a thing as correct English and take enormous pleasure in going around shouting at people whose speech or writing contain such sins as double negatives, split infinitives and singular "they"s, despite the long pedigree and wide use of these constructions.

The pedant's best friend is the Associated Press Stylebook, which has always billed itself as guidelines and advice, not rules or laws, but which has been turned into a holy scripture by people who think their beliefs about grammar make them an oppressed religious minority.

And just as Pope Francis's progressive pronouncements on migration and climate have enraged self-declared "Catholics" like Steve Bannon, the AP's most humane and modern recommendations are often met with outraged denunciations from grammarians who consider themselves such true partisans of the AP Stylebook that they are prepared to defend it from those well-known heretics, the editors of the AP Stylebook.

One recent such fight was the AP's recommendation to eliminate hyphens in compound modifiers "if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen" such as "first quarter touchdown."

After sustained outrage, the AP backtracked and reversed its advice: "We agree that, for instance, first-half run should be hyphenated. So to conform, we are returning the hyphen to the -quarter phrases. We also hyphenate first-degree murder. But we're keeping the no-hyphen first grade student, just like high school student."

This, in turn, created more sectarian dissent from people who were still outraged over hyphens.

Meanwhile, as Columbia Journalism Review's Merrill Perlman points out, the AP has always said that hyphens are an art, not a science, and called on writers to use their own judgment: "Think of hyphens as an aid to readers' comprehension. If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it. If it just adds clutter and distraction to the sentence, don't use it. If the sheer number of hyphens in a phrase, or confusion about how to use them, can daunt either the writer or the reader, try rephrasing. It's a guide about how to use hyphens wisely, not it's a how-to-use-hyphens-wisely guide."

The apparent problem is that AP refuses to set down "rules." As the stylebook says, using hyphens "can be a matter of taste, judgment and style sense." Judging by many of the Twitter reactions to the change to the changes, people want "rules."

"Rules" are easy to follow; "guidelines" require you to stick your neck out and decide based on what the orchid-loving detective Nero Wolfe would call "intelligence guided by experience." It means you have to believe in your own decision-making abilities.

AP hyphen outrage continues with guidance update
[Merrill Perlman/Columbia Journalism Review]

(via Naked Capitalism)