Life

The Hyphen Affair

Why grammar nerds keep getting so furious with the Associated Press—and why they’re wrong.

An anthropomorphized AP Stylebook with a smug grin and a red pen.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Late last month, the AP Stylebook—that fusty old guide to grammar and punctuation that most news publications have relied on for decades—dropped an apparent bomb on the word-nerd world. On Twitter, the stylebook’s official account declared that hyphens were no longer needed for compound modifiersif “the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen.” To explain this new way of things, the stylebook offered the example first quarter touchdown—not first-quarter touchdown.

The response was swift. Replies to the tweet from journalism types expressed chest(-)heaving rage. “Over my still-warm dead body,” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky wrote. “You are destroying America,” veteran editor Helen Kennedy said. “PLEASE STOP WITH THE MADNESS,” CBS Sports writer Matt Norlander pleaded, summing up the reaction to many recent changes from the AP, like the decision to make it “internet,” not “Internet.”

This afternoon, some grammar lovers might react with another fit of fury—or triumphalism—as the AP Stylebook is announcing another set of tweaks to its compound modifier guidelines that undo some of the hyphen halting. The new entry includes more examples showing when to hyphenate and when not to, in some cases reversing examples from its previous round of suggestions. New language has also been added to explain explicitly that the goal of the stylebook’s guidance is not to say “always” or “never” hyphenate compound modifiers—but just to maximize clarity. “If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it. If it just adds clutter and distraction to the sentence, don’t use it,” it now reads.

To combat the misperception that the changes meant the AP was eliminating hyphens from compound modifiers, the new entry also cuts language that, in fact, had been in the guide for years: The entry will no longer state that hyphens are “optional in most cases” and that “the fewer hyphens the better.” “That wording did not reflect the reality of the rest of the entry, or of our actual practice,” lead editor Paula Froke told me.

Froke said her team developed this latest round of changes after the uproar led it to examine the full entry more closely than it did the first time. “We listen to what people are saying. And we take advice from all corners. And in this case, I thought there were some good points.” She added that she didn’t see the new guidelines as “capitulating or walking back much.”

Notably, the updates include the example used in the ignominious tweet: first-quarter touchdown, which is regaining its hyphen. In an email, Froke said a specific counterexample made them rethink that one: first-half run, which Froke and her colleagues agreed should be hyphenated. And if that hyphen lives, they reasoned, it makes sense for -quarter phrases in the same context to have one, too.

“In hindsight, clearly we would do this particular tweet again. The example that was used, first quarter touchdown, was in hindsight not a good example,” she said. “I think chocolate chip cookie, for example, would have been a much better example.” Here’s how the newest version lays out the rules, with more examples:

Do use a hyphen if it’s needed to make the meaning clear and avoid unintended meanings: small-business owner, better-qualified candidate, little-known song, French-speaking people, free-thinking philosophy, loose-knit group, low-income workers, never-published guidance, self-driving car, bases-loaded triple, one-way street. (Think of the different possible meanings or confusion if the hyphen is removed in each of those examples.)

Other two-word terms, particularly those used as nouns, have evolved to be commonly recognized as, in effect, one word. No hyphen is needed when such terms are used as modifiers if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, real estate transactionemergency room visit, cat food bowl, parking lot entrance, national security briefing, computer software maker.

The online furor and the stylebook’s high-council summits to respond to the controversy may seem like a lot of bramble and vinegar over some stray hyphens. But I get it. As an ex–copy editor, I can get surly about this stuff, too, as will soon become apparent. And even nondorks can admire the red-pen passion of the incensed. In this case, the people shouting from the cheap seats seemed to have more reason than the justices on the Supreme Court of journalistic grammar. Using a hyphen as a chain to link adjectives working together sends readers a clear signal: These conjoined modifiers describe the same noun that follows them. Makes honest-to-God sense, right?

Perhaps, but the AP Stylebook’s former guidelines on compound modifiers—the Way of Things before all this tinkering—didn’t actually dictate that they should always be hyphenated. So the protesters’ anger in that vein is pretty puzzling. And with due respect to the objectors, anyone who has regularly used the AP Stylebook in recent years should know that the rule “changes” are barely changes at all. The stylebook loosens some already loose guidelines, and devotees react as if it’s a major shift. That’s what’s more telling here. Why did this change—as with the AP Stylebook’s other changes in recent years—offend so many so intensely?

AP’s changes to the compound modifier guidelines—and its changes to the changes—make perfect sense to me, and on the merits, I think they’re fine. But the first change irked me, too— for reasons beyond the merits. If this was such a minor change in emphasis, and if the stylebook was still saying that individuals should make a judgment call in each case, why bother with the change? And why institute it in such a grand way online, where it was sure to get a reaction? The answer, I thought, was likely publicity. This announcement seemed to perpetuate a habit that the AP Stylebook has developed in recent years: more frequent announcements of high-profile changes that have seemed either unnecessary or of dubious value. To me, the editors’ efforts sometimes seemed like little more than a thirst campaign unbecoming of the institution. It reminded me of Merriam-Webster’s tweets, or the National Park Service’s Instagram captions, both examples of grandpop institutions hello-fellow-kids-ing their way into online relevance. I figured the AP had transmogrified into another viral-thirst monster. It has sales to maintain, and newspapers are an endangered species. Wouldn’t it help the business to drop a few bombs every now and then, juice some buzz, and push a little more product?

Then I looked a little closer at the pattern of changes. And I am sorry to report none of us—not angry Grammar Twitter, and not me—knew what the hell we were talking about.

Let’s start with the hyphen lovers. Though the stylebook tweeted about the change just a few weeks ago, Froke in fact announced it at the end of March, at the annual American Copy Editors Society conference. It was then further publicized in the AP Stylebook’s monthly email to subscribers about the book’s updates. That ACES announcement and subsequent email inspired scant social media outrage among word types, because stylebook changes like this are pretty common and are generally not reduced to a thinly worded tweet. Indeed, if you look at the language in that email’s version of the new rule—which now lives on the online AP Stylebook—the long-standing flexibility in the compound modifier rule is baked right into it. “When a compound modifier … precedes a noun, you must decide: Hyphenate that modifier, or not? Often there’s not one absolute answer,” it reads. It also clarifies that not hyphenating is only the preferred form “if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen.”

In the 2011 print AP Stylebook that Slate assistant managing editor and copy chief Abby McIntyre keeps on her desk, the ambiguity and personal judgment inherent to using hyphens is similarly emphasized. “Use of a hyphen is far from standardized,” it reads. Hyphens are “a matter of taste, judgment and style sense … use them only when not using them causes confusion.” Froke pointed to Henry Watson Fowler’s 1926 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage to note how long hyphens have had ambiguous uses, though Fowler thought a little more order was needed. “The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English education,” he wrote.

In other words, the stylebook editors were not exactly repealing the First Amendment here. Nor is the newest change Wednesday to the change some kind of shameful flip-flop. The difference between what the guidelines were before and what they are now barely registers. Moreover, they’re exactly that: guidelines. These aren’t even rules about compound modifiers. They’re suggestions, and they have been for decades.

As for my own suspicions about the AP’s motives: Just about the only thing I had right was that the increased frequency in stylebook changes is real. Froke told me “absolutely” there have been more changes recently than in the past.

Certainly in the past, I don’t know, five years, possibly more, we have had much more of an emphasis on updating the stylebook online throughout the year. Whereas for decades, the stylebook’s major updates came once a year in the spring with the print edition.” The number of changes at the beginning of each year’s print edition keeps going up, too. Whether through the online version or through real-world interactions at the ACES conference, the stylebook’s users communicate their ideas and gripes with the editors more frequently than in the past, naturally leading to more change. “Things bubble up, and we decide to go ahead and push them out.” But even if some of those changes have been to sacred cows—accepting over as a replacement for more than still hurts, and I still disagree with the book’s reasons for lowercasing internet—there’s really no evidence the AP is doing it to get a rise out of people, or to pad its income.

“Remember that the AP Stylebook is part of the Associated Press. And so, we don’t view ourselves as being in the wave-making business,” Froke said. “Bottom line, as most people would think about it, yes, there’s a church-state separation. The business side does what they do, and my team does what we do.” Speaking about the stylebook’s business manager, former journalist Colleen Newvine, Froke said, “She certainly never would, nor would I ever accept her saying, ‘From a business perspective, we need to do this, this, and this,’ ” adding, “She might chime in with ideas just usually as a regular user. For instance, based on her own experience, she said, ‘Hey, could you all look at a style for coworking?’ Which we didn’t have.”

As for the idea that these changes might be intended to goose sales: also no. “The stylebook is doing fine. The decline of the number of journalists in the world is balanced for us by an increase in other types of users out there,” Froke said, noting that PR firms, businesses, and government agencies are among the guide’s subscribers.

It turns out that the stylebook makes changes for reasons that can have little to do with going viral or making some coin. Sometimes, the world changes, or the AP editors decide that language should be less bigoted. A more consequential new entry the guide presented at the 2019 ACES conference was an umbrella entry about race, racism, and race-related coverage. These guidelines include suggestions for when biracial and multiracial are acceptable descriptors, prohibitions on offensive terms that were once commonplace like Oriental and Aborigine, and guidelines for when to call something racist. In 2017, the stylebook began accepting the singular they, in part because it is preferred by an increasing number of people as a pronoun. Other times—get a load of this—someone says something to the stylebook editors that makes them research and think about it. Froke said one stylebook user’s question led to another change she announced at this year’s ACES conference: accepting the percent sign (%) as a replacement for the word percent. (I don’t like this change, but that’s the subject of a different rant.)

Despite its new age of frequent tweaks, the AP Stylebook still presents as rather prim, and that’s part of what many style geeks (like me) like about it. In a chaotic world, it offers order, at least in the realm of writing. Grammar and punctuation and diction rules exist to uphold consistency, which in turn helps writing become clearer to the greatest number of possible readers. As fewer and fewer people seem to agree on not just the truth, but the very meaning of language, it’s a tool that’s more valuable than ever. That’s the real reason why I and so many others (over)reacted to the hyphen change, the acceptance of the percent sign, and the more than­­–over shift with such anger: It made us question our faith. Institutions and rules are crumbling everywhere we look, and now, this too succumbs to anarchy? The AP Stylebook represents not just a set of laws about right and wrong, but the idea that something, anything, can be trustworthy and endure. But I’m ultimately convinced that the way the AP Stylebook has arrived at these latest changes seems honest, and far more stable than the often-furious reactions suggest. Sure, give up on the rotten and corrupt institutions that used to hold society together. But believe in the hyphens.