In praise of the humble hyphen

I’ve been ruminating for a while about the evolution of language and our use of grammar.

It’s undeniable that the advent of texts and hurried emails is changing the way we use the written (or typed) word; when Chevy put out a press release consisting entirely of emojis, I wondered if we had already passed the tipping point.

But an ad for mortgage company L&C offering fee free mortgage advice reignited my frustration that a more slapdash approach just risks generating confusion and misunderstanding.

Call me a grammar pedant, but their strapline doesn’t make sense: will they give me free mortgage advice? Or a fee? Why is the word fee even in there if it’s free??

A simple hyphen is all that’s needed to sort this mess… ah, fee-free mortgage advice. That makes sense.

I’m afraid that hyphenation is being seen as fussy, unnecessary or even old-fashioned when really there are many cases where a hyphen helps to make a phrase mean an entirely different thing: compare the lunchtime scene of a man eating chicken versus the raging fowl that would be a man-eating chicken, for example.

I know, grumble grumble, but punctuation and grammar are vital if we are to make ourselves understood on page or screen. Just look at the Eats, Shoots and Leaves joke…

And in case you’re confused about the humble hyphen’s role, in this case it’s used when two words precede a third, for example it’s recommended you don’t take down any load-bearing walls when renovating, this rock-hard cake is absolutely impossible to eat, or we’re looking for a dog-friendly hotel (thanks Grammarly).

What do you think? Is it time to get rid of those hyphens cluttering up our phrases? Should we just accept that language is fluid and move on?

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