WNW: The Power of a Hyphen

I love punctuation.

I adore how these little marks allow writers to "conduct" the music that is their sentences and paragraphs. If a writer knows how to use punctuation well, the meaning is clear, rhythms flow, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Fine. That's a slight exaggeration. But the basic concept is sound.

One of my favorite punctuation situations involves hyphenated compound adjectives, because leaving off a hyphen with these little buggers is a classic way of inadvertently creating writer bloopers.

What?! Hyphenated compound adjectives sound as interesting at burnt toast?

Try this on for size:

Not long ago, there was an episode of Monk where sportscaster Bob Costas guest-starred. Bob expressed his gratitude for a time earlier when Monk had saved his life from a situation involving a demented cat salesman.

Bob tells the story to Captain Stottlemeyer of the San Fransisco Police. Since Monk is known for catching murderers and solving apparently unsolvable mysteries, the good Captain and the audience are all picturing the demented cat salesman as some shady dude who sells cats on the side then takes on the role of psycho murderer in his down time.

Not so.

Bob clarifies: The cat was demented. It tried to kill Bob, not the salesman.

In which case, he wasn't talking about a demented cat salesman.

He was talking about a demented-cat salesman.

Now the image shifts: Bob was nearly killed by something like this:

Amazing what a little hyphen can do, don't ya think?


Kristina P. said…
Very interesting! I have to admit that I am not very good at knowing when to use a hyphen and when not to.
Lara said…
That is interesting. I'm horrible at punctuation. I just do it by feel, without really paying attention to rules...I look forward to learning how to use colons and semi-colons and em dashes properly! :)
Josi said…
Is it a bad sign that I had to read this 3 times to realize what you meant? A man the sells demented cats, right? But it was the cat that tried to kill Bob, not the salesman? My head hurts.
Tirzah said…
I like hyphens and exclamation points. I know I overuse exclamation points, though! I probably overuse commas, too!

(I love the Monk reference!)
Melanie J said…
I'm an over-hyphenator but I'm working on it. I just like my words to feel connected, I guess.
Sher said…
I love hyphens, and all other kinds of puncuation. I-probably-use-them-way-too-much.
Heffalump said…
Educational as always!
Annie Valentine said…
I love hyphens. I think I over-use them.
::Jan:: said…
I over use hyphens. I put them in spots they shouldn't be. But I love the look of them Annette. I am laughing as I am typing this. I will probably have a hyphen on my grave site.

Here - she is now.
I love hyphens. I use them constantly, mostly because I think they best represent how my mind flows from one idea to another. (In stutters.)

Hail the hyphen!
wonder woman said…
I love hyphens, too. I don't think I always use them correctly, but I love them. And commas. Oh, how I love commas!! I'm always adding them to whatever my husband writes because he doesn't believe in punctuation, or spellcheck. But it makes the editor in me giddy to have so much work to do!!
When I wrote my humor column it would drive me crazy when an editor would change my punctuation and cause a sentence that I intended to be sarcastic, instead end up making me look like I was completely stupid.

And I'm still trying to figure out the difference between a demented-cat salesman and a demented cat-salesman.

Aren't they both salesmen that sell cats?
Heidi Ashworth said…
Truly you speaketh truth.
JustRandi said…
I used to know - and actually use- rules of punctuation.
Blogging has been a freeing thing for me. I pretty much make up my own rules now.

But I do appreciate knowing how it's SUPPOSED to work.
Annette Lyon said…
For Josi and Anna--

Yes, the salesman sells cats in both cases. But in one instance, the salesman himself is demented.

With the hyphen, the CATS he sells are demented.

Erin said…
That was very funny. I think I know how to use hyphens!
Jenn said…
One of my fav posts Annette.
I love it
Anne Bradshaw said…
Oh, yay! Now I understand the hyphen thing - for a few minutes, at least :-) Thanks, Annette.
Jami said…
I love hyphens, but they're a bugger to use in HTML.
wenderful said…
Good point. Not sure I could use it properly but I can see that you did. Love your picture!
Kimberly said…
Hee hee...brilliant illustration!

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