Thursday, December 08, 2005

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin

Or is it The 40 Year-Old Virgin...or The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Those dashes have been just about everywhere. Different uses in the official ad campaigns, even the various mentions in the LA Times. No one can agree, and this is coming from the camps who should know where to put a dash.

So my question today is...how DO you decide where to put a dash? Is there any official rule? Handbook? Is there an evolution of dashes in our culture vocabulary?

This issue has been bugging me lately because I'm editing Mom's autobiography, and she is a dash user. Multiple dash user on every page. But I can't necessarily say she's wrong. And staring at the words doesn't seem to help. So how do I decide?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

First of all, there is a difference between a dash (used like an ellipsis) and a hyphen (in hyphenated words). You need a copy of "Eats Shoots and Leaves" - a good read that take punctuation VERY seriously.

Kid Sis said...

Excellent. Knew there'd be a punctuation Nazi out there. Thanks for the tip.

Fun Joel said...

There were actually articles out mentioning the difficulties that certain newspapers (like the NY Times) had in reviewing 40YOV because of the punctuation error. The "correct" way is to hyphenate as 40-year old virgin, but the "official" title was 40 year-old virgin.

There are plenty of grat style guides out there. Common ones are Chicago Man of Style and NY Times (I think). I believe there are two main "style manuals" used throughout publishing circles. I refer for various purposes to the MLA Handbook, my old Prentice Hall Handbook for Writers (from college, I think), and Princeton Review's Grammar Smart (I work for them).

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm SO calling CC for this one. The whole English teacher thing.

MIM

BrianFies said...

Sis, why oh why don't you come to me?

Your first anonymous poster is right about the difference between hyphens and dashes (usually written as a double hyphen, or an extra-wide "m-dash"), although I think the dash is most useful as almost a semicolon to provide a long pause or to set off subordinate or parenthetical clauses. Never mind.... Also, "Eats Shoots and Leaves" is full of Britishisms or outright errors that don't necessarily provide good guidelines for USA English.

As I recall from my junior editor Associated Press Stylebook days, hyphens are properly used to link compound modifiers. So your example should be "40-year-old virgin" because the "40-year-old" part is a single thought that tells you something about the virgin. But when you flip that sentence around to read, "The virgin was 40 years old," you don't use hyphens because the "40 years old" part doesn't directly modify the virgin part.

(By the way, in book publishing (as opposed to newspapers and magazines) it's pretty standard to write out numerals: "forty-year-old virgin." I know this because I had to go through my book and make this change. It turns out that "Mom's Cancer" has more numerals than you might expect.)

Some examples:
The team scored a first-quarter touchdown.
The team scored in the first quarter.

The house had a natural-gas-fueled water heater.
The water heater was fueled by natural gas.

I had a full-time job.
I worked full time.

You should use hyphens to clarify a phrase that could be taken more than one way. If you write, "He was a little known actor," you could either mean that he was an actor that not many people knew OR he was a short actor that a lot of people knew (he was little AND he was known). If you intend the first meaning, write "little-known."

Also, if you've got a long string of hyphenated words, you can use suspensive hyphenation like this: "Lex Luthor received a 20- to 30-year sentence." "The 12-, 15- and 25-cent comics of my youth are a thing of the past."

One rule is don't use hyphens with adverbs--words that end in "ly." "The badly dressed model walked her poorly behaved chihuahua." That's because the connection between the two words is already understood from the "ly."

I think this is mostly right and should at least give you a good start. If you want to run some specific examples by me, I'll be happy to help.

And that "Nazi" thing kinda hurts....

XO

Kid Sis said...

FJ, that's so funny someone wrote an article about it, because I've been rolling everytime I've seen it. Just today, there was an offical DVD commercial that spelled it two ways! Guess they wanted to be right 50% of the time. Or...maybe still zero.

MIM, thanks...totally should have thought of her.

Bri, Sorry to air my dirty laundry yet again in public. I know what a cross I am around your neck. But that was an excellent lesson, and my poorly educated Catholic school-brain thanks you (how was that?)

Seriously, forty kids to a classrooom really messes with your grammar basics. Charlie recently had to define than and then for me. But now I never forget. Guess you can't learn everything just from reading tons.

And um...if the armband fits?

Lynne said...

I agree, Chicago Style book is excellent for all kinds of proper publishing usage, and if I remember correctly, hyphenating words is appropriate when stringing together words that when now combined create what is essentially a new word. (right, Bri?)

Your family is just amazing!