A few weeks ago, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary shortened the beloved O.E.D. some more, with the elimination of approximately 16,000 hyphens. Certainly it’s of no dire consequence that ’e-mail’ is now ’email,’ and I don’t think I even knew that ’ice cream’ was ever ’ice-cream’ (and ’test tube’ once ’test-tube’ and ’chickpea’ once ’chick-pea’). The hyphen has never been as vital as the comma—nor even as the semi-colon, for that matter, or the emdash—and language, a dynamic thing, evolves as it must.
Still, it seems to me worth noting the cause of this grammatical amputation. According to Angus Stevenson, the editor of the Shorter O.E.D.’s sixth edition, people aren’t really sure what hyphens are “for” anymore. Many of us have gotten too lazy to reach our right-hand ring-finger to the hyphen key when we’re punching out a quick email, or else we care more about speed and design than function and syntactical rules. Our behavior is squeezing out the hyphen, and now we see this medieval punctuation mark fallen victim to modern technology.
Silly as it sounds, this systematic purging of the hyphen points to the actual importance of punctuation. To cite a comical piece of evidence from Lynne Truss’s 2004 “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”: just imagine the potential difference between ’extra marital sex’ and ’extra-marital sex’ in a situation with your future spouse. ’Ten-odd people’ in my apartment is not ’ten odd people’ who came to call—which is to say: the hyphen means something. Language is central to expression, communication and identity; we must therefore be aware of how we, typing and texting as we do, are changing our tongue.
As any visit to the Olin Special Collections will teach you, the physical act of writing once mandated an extraordinary exertion of labor (not to mention capital). Now, though, we’re a society of people spewing a never-ending flood of written words. From making plans on a Facebook wall (we all want to show off how clever we are, and what place better for those of us still put off by MySpace) to sending text-messages within a certain character limit—we hardly think of it, but we’re writing all the time. I myself, on the Verizon phone plan, am quite familiar with cramming text into 160 spaces, which has led to a fair share of confusion in plans and unfortunate spats.
I may be a Luddite romantic paying too much mind to the trivial, but it seems to me that there is something lost in this degradation of writing—from letters delivered by horse-drawn carriage, to courier by post, to telephone calls, to email and Facebook and text-messaging and AOL Instant Messenger and Gmail-chatting.
I certainly don’t think we should be a less literate society. Indeed, I am sold on the hot prospect of the One Laptop per Child project, which endeavors to provide a computer with internet access to under-privledged children worldwide. Yet, in a world where any of us can blog and pundits are homespun, I fear that language of a certain quality is a dying breed (newspapers and magazines are surely feeling this crunch). I want to get my news fast, too, but there’s a certain point where I won’t sacrifice the excellence of writing and integrity of information. In writing nowadays, my own very much included, it seems that there’s such a desire to be original, witty or speedy in communication that we forget the crucial importance of precision in expression.
The recently published “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home” seeks to ameliorate this situation, by providing guidelines for etiquette and presentation in the Information Age. The first time I leafed through this updated Elements of Style, I was surprised to see that it suggested using far more exclamation points than I’ve previously felt comfortable using. But perhaps this unexpected advice is more insightful than it seemed at first glance. Now that we do so much communication through short snippets of written words—digitally scribbled is more like it—we lose the richness of information imparted through face-to-face communication. In a world where written language need no longer be worthy of publication, using exclamation points might be one small way we can resolve this problem.
And this problem, I would say, is the severe dulling of the art of language. Maybe our use of technology necessitates exaggeration in the way we communicate; maybe the use of exclamation points and—heaven forbid—emoticons makes more sense than I had thought. We say we hate this-or-that food at Usdan, or love professor so-and-so for granting an extension, when we mean to express minor annoyance or cheerful relief. We speak constantly in hyperbole (see: this sentence)—typing ’LOL’ without so much as cracking a smile, or ’WTF’ in reaction to something only slightly askew—and maybe with good reason.
Our generation’s vernacular, in-person and on-line (or online), has changed the way society speaks. From our puzzling decision to write in all lowercase, to the shared tendency to lag on the last letter of words (i.e., ’just kiddingggg’), we are constantly altering the way we interact, communicate and perceive.
My favorite contribution of our generation is the change in one particular law of grammar. In middle school, most of us learned not to end our sentences with prepositions. There is of course the (likely misattributed) Churchill line that he quipped upon receiving stuffy advice: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” But even Churchill might have had a hard time navigating the system we have developed—I maintain that college-age communication would be markedly different if we had to gossip about the person ’up with whom I hooked’ instead of using the phrase ’hooked up.’
Ruminations on punctuation, it’s quite likely, get me nowhere. Overall, I think it a good thing that the act of writing is everywhere, and that language is constantly in motion.
Nevertheless, I hope that generations beyond ours will be fully acquainted with the hyphen, even if they use new punctuation symbols I’ve only seen proposed (ever heard of the question comma or the exclamation comma? As a Wesleyan-inspired devotée of irony, my personal favorite is the sarcasm point). I always thought the hyphen a valiant and helpful little guy, so I hope he lives on. A part of me just can’t accept that language can change like this before my eyes. Call me old-fashioned. Or maybe, in a few short years, old fashioned.