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The Word

Lose the hyphen

Little changes can set people off

(Greg Klee/Globe Staff)
By Jan Freeman
March 27, 2011

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Earlier this month, at a national convention of professional copy editors, the Associated Press announced a few changes to its house style. Calcutta would henceforth be Kolkata, cell phone and smart phone had become cellphone and smartphone, and CPR no longer needed the gloss “cardiopulmonary resuscitation.”

But it was the tiniest change on the list that set editors and word-watchers atwitter: The AP decreed that e-mail, after a minor surgical procedure, would emerge as the hyphenless email.

Finally! responded some online commenters. We have Gmail and iPad and JDate — it’s high time email got on board. Others didn’t see the logic: When we still hyphenate C-section and T-shirt and X-ray — and (even at AP) e-commerce and e-book — why make this weird exception to the dominant pattern?

For most people, of course — including many of the impassioned commenters — the ruling doesn’t matter at all. What the AP means by “style” has nothing to do with soaring prose or platform sandals. AP style is just a guide to the fine points of editing for AP employees and subscribers — a compilation of preferences in matters of spelling, punctuation, and usage that have more than one right answer.

Many news outlets follow AP’s guidelines, which are published in book form and online, so its decisions do make a difference. But nobody’s bound to follow them: At the Globe and The New York Times, which have their own style guides, e-mail is keeping its hyphen (for now). And in everyday life, we can still hyphenate as quirkily as we like.

So why the heated reactions to the e-mail decision? Like much language change, a shift in AP style seems to say something about who we are and what we value as a culture. That may be an illusion, but we can’t resist inventing explanations for our language preferences. If you’ve always used the serial comma — “red, white, and blue” — its absence can look slipshod and lazy. If you were taught the more streamlined AP style — “red, white and blue” — the extra comma may seem fussy and pretentious.

And when a style change reflects obvious cultural trends, it’s natural for language traditionalists to see it as a threat to Literacy In Our Time. There was no rebellion when the Chicago Manual of Style — the leading guide for scholarly books — changed “Taylor and Elm Streets” to “Taylor and Elm streets,” lower-casing “streets,” and then changed it back again in a later edition. But allowing a sentence to start with a lower-case letter, as Chicago now does — “iPods are indispensable,” “eBay is floundering” — seems like more than a style decision; it’s a concession to branding fashion.

Publishers don’t provide Macy’s with a star-shaped apostrophe to match its logo, or reverse the R in Toys R Us, or (except when temporarily bamboozled) lower-case a company name because its ads are styled that way. But for the trendy e-companies, the editors cave; what style maven wouldn’t suspect the undue influence of youth and money?

Then there are rulings on matters of taste. The New York Times (which notoriously held out against Ms. till the mid-1980s) just recently accepted the fact that girlfriend and boyfriend have become words for grown-ups. “While traditionalists still view these terms as informal, and even a bit awkward for adults, there’s no ignoring that we live in a city where a mayor of a certain age has a girlfriend of a certain age,” wrote the Times spokesman, sounding as regretful as those “traditionalist” readers.

For a working editor, though, the most puzzling style questions (and probably the most frequent style changes) come from the e-mail-vs.-email category. When is tax man a so-called open compound, when is it hyphenated, when is it one word? And who decides?

It would be nice if there were rules to cite, but nothing in usage is less orderly than our spelling of compounds. Generally, the more often a compound is used, the sooner it closes up, and in many cases we don’t even notice. Our back yards are now, in many dictionaries and stylebooks, backyards, but a front yard is still two words. That’s probably because backyard is so frequent: We use it in backyard barbecue, backyard swing set, backyard bird feeder, not in my backyard. That fact does say something about us and our culture, but it’s not something that strikes anyone as ominous.

E-mail and the other wired words, though, evoke not just technology but an identifiable social group — younger users, early adopters, the writers least likely to care about traditional print styles. “Wired Style,” the manual published by Wired magazine, recommending the spelling email 15 years ago; why waste time and keystrokes on a meaningless hyphen?

Even the hyphenated e-mail hasn’t been welcome everywhere; until recently, the Times was telling editors to use “an e-mail message” instead of “an e-mail.” If you wouldn’t say “a mail,” the reasoning goes, then you shouldn’t say “an e-mail” either. But this sort of logic rarely makes a dent in usage. Someday was once written some day, and one day alright will be all right — if only because today’s young rule breakers are tomorrow’s editors and teachers. And they’ll be alright with that.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).