Why You Should Use a Hyphen: “The Millisecond of Ambiguity”

Wise counsel from Bill Walsh, author of Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk:

To me, hyphens are to writing what turn signals are to driving: helpful, unobtrusive and far too often considered optional. Many in the odd-editor community disagree. Taking to heart the rationale that hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity, they are forever searching for reasons to declare certain modifiers or sorts of modifiers unambiguous and thus exempt from hyphenation.

So you have to ask yourself: What do you do when confronted with something like Doctor helps car crash victims?

Do you hyphenate all instances for consistency in this story but approach other stories case by case? Or do you just recognize that it’s a good idea to hyphenate compound modifiers and avoid all that torture?

More alarming to me was Time’s cover story about “The Only Child Myth.” What the editors meant, of course, was the only-child myth. I fear that someone on the “creative” side thought a hyphen would be all ugly and cluttery.

I’m the kind of person who uses a turn signal before changing lanes even when nobody’s watching. Just as you can’t predict when a car is going to materialize out of nowhere, you can’t necessarily predict how your copy is going to be read.

The millisecond of ambiguity is the rationale behind my policy of strictly hyphenating compound modifiers. If I simply wrote white truffle purveyors, you would briefly wonder whether the purveyors were white, and you’d have to backtrack and mentally insert the hyphen that applies the whiteness to the truffles.

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