Right-reading (adj): Having the proper orientation (used in printing)

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Tom Christensen
("xensen") . tom [at] rightreading.com

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Disappearing hyphens?

Since a big deal is being made about supposedly disappearing hyphens, let’s apply a little perspective to the discussion.

The first thing to realize is that the furor is the result of a promotional campaign for a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary; the sixth edition has omitted 16,000 hyphens that were included in the previous edition. The popular press has blamed e-mail for this, but the trend toward reduced hyphenation has actually been going on since at least the middle of the twentieth century.

What makes this a nonstory for me — besides the “who cares” aspect — is the source. If you are using the Oxford English Dictionary as a guide to spelling, all I can say is, stop now. The OED has no equal as an etymological and historical dictionary of English usage. But as a guide to spelling it has always been decades behind the times, and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here. The sixth edition of the Shorter is playing catch-up with other dictionaries, and now is hardly the time to make a fuss about hyphens that perished half a century ago.

Check out these examples — not chosen by me but just picked up from the press reports — of words that according to SOED6 have changed from being hypenated to being spelled open or closed:

  • Words that the SOED now spells open:
    • fig leaf
    • hobby horse
    • ice cream
    • pin money
    • pot belly
    • test tube
  • Words that the SOED now spells closed:
    • bumblebee
    • chickpea
    • crybaby
    • leapfrog
    • logjam

Okay, now compare those to versions from a dictionary that people actually use as a guide to spelling, Websters New Collegiate. Just to make things clearer, I’ll use the ninth edition, published in 1983.

  • fig leaf
  • hobbyhorse
  • ice cream
  • pin money
  • potbelly
  • test tube
  • bumblebee
  • chick-pea
  • crybaby
  • leapfrog
  • logjam

You see? This has nothing at all to do with e-mail. Already a quarter century ago — in the real world if not in the OED — there was only one hyphen remaining in the entire lot that is now being used to support this story. Congratulations to the Oxford folks for successfully framing this story as one about disappearing hyphens. But the real story is that the OED is beginning to take its head out of the sand and move closer to the practice of real contemporary dictionaries.

RELATED: Typophile: What’s your favorite hyphen?

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Comment from Robert
Time: October 1, 2007, 4:16 pm

Using the OED to spell is an especially bad idea for Americans.

Comment from xensen
Time: October 1, 2007, 4:49 pm

Yes, I probably should have mentioned the differences between UK and US English. I guess I assumed it was clear I’m writing from the US point of view.

Comment from Dave Richmond
Time: October 2, 2007, 12:50 am

Fair comment on the demise of the hyphen, but Websters as a guide to spelling? Good grief, Websters omits the u from colour and favourite…

Comment from Stan Johns
Time: October 2, 2007, 5:44 am

Dear Xensen,

I still use an Oxford Dictionary printed in the 1990s. I suppose that, so long as enough people reading what I write are still locked in that decade’s spelling regime, then my writing will be understood.

Or perhaps everybody has already moved on and left me behind like a pot-bellied bumble-bee eating chick-peas in a test-tube held in the hand of a cry-baby galloping on a hobby-horse that refuses to leap-frog over a log-jam, not for pin-money nor ice-cream. I’ll start looking for a leaf of some description to hide my embarrassment…

All the best,


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