More Hyphenation

Link post

“MAN EATING PIRANHA MISTAKENLY SOLD AS PET FISH” — example news headline from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

The rule is that you use hyphens for compound modifiers like the ones in natural-language processing, high-impact opportunities, cost-effectiveness measures, high-status employers, and so on. Don’t break up compound proper nouns (“New York-based company”) and don’t use them after adverbs ending in -ly but do use them after other adverbs (“stern-looking boss”). You can use suspended hyphens when talking about “latex- and phthalate-free gloves.”

But hyphens are under attack. The Chicago Manual of Style “prefers a spare hyphenation style.” The AP Stylebook says that “the fewer hyphens the better.” In older texts you see a lot more hyphenation than you do today.

Part of this is because of a good trend of combining compound nouns, turning e-mail and fire-fly into email and firefly. But part of it involves replacing hyphens with spaces, turning high-school seniors and ice-cream cones into high school seniors and ice cream cones. Some people think hyphens just look bad.

But hyphens are excellent because they improve the readability of text—the speed at which it can be understood, even at a less-than-perceptible level. In fact, it would probably be an improvement to language if it became acceptable and normal to hyphenate compound nouns simply to make the noun phrase faster to read. But first I hope we can return to making references to chocolate-chip cookies.

Skimming the curated posts that are on LessWrong right now, as a random sample:

  • A Shutdown Problem Proposal → A Shutdown-Problem Proposal

  • hopefully-corrigible agent → hopefully corrigible agent

  • large scale X → large-scale X

A good example of hyphen use: “to make any child-agents it creates responsive-but-not-manipulative to the shutdown button, recursively.”