Friday, June 24, 2011

Grammararians have their own Fight Club

For a non-movie watcher, I seem to be writing about Fight Club a lot. I wrote about it last August 17, and again on September 14. The reason that I continue to turn to this is because there are many occasions in which we declare that things are rules, but the rules are not universally accepted.

One of my co-workers is reading The Chicago Manual of Style for fun. (Yes, we proposal writers are strange folks.) And that manual has rules for how people should write. One of these is quoted by the Abbeville Manual of Style:

1.2. Adverbs ending in “ly.” Chicago lays down the law on this one. “Compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun, since ambiguity is virtually impossible.” We tried hard to come up with some clever example of ambiguity to prove them wrong, but a formulation like “the bravely-borne illness of the tightly-wound tailor” looks a little la-di-da and suspicious even to us. Winner: Chicago.

It didn't take me long to find an instance in which I broke this rule:

For the last couple of years, there have been discussions of the commonly-used capital punishment method of lethal injection, including the question of whether this method is "cruel and unusual."

Yes, that's another high-qualtiy sentence from me.

So how does this rule operate in real life? In most cases, someone will write something which will be marked wrong by someone, and this conversation will take place:

WRITER: What's wrong with the first sentence of section

EDITOR: Improper hyphenation.

WRITER: What's wrong with it?

EDITOR: You don't hyphenate after adverbs ending in ly.

WRITER: Why not?

EDITOR: Because.

From my reading, it appears that a lot of editors are being challenged on this one. Here is an exchange from Jean Weber:

“I’m writing to enquire about your use of the first hyphen in the phrase ‘clearly-labeled stand-alone tutorial’ (in your recent article titled ‘Are chapter numbers necessary?’). The references that I use at work (Chicago and Gregg’s) recommend against such a hyphen. Do you use a different reference that mandates this hyphen?”

I answered,

“No, in that case I used it because there were four words in a row modifying ‘tutorial’ and it seemed more clear (and more balanced) to hyphenate each set of two. That first hyphen isn’t necessary, and as you say, standard references these days recommend against it. Actually, I think I use it mostly because back in the dark ages when I studied grammar (which was taught in schools in those days) then that hyphen was more commonly used. But I could be misremembering.”

And you need to make sure you apply the rule correctly:

But take a closer look the next time you see an "ly" word. Not all of them are adverbs (e.g., friendly, lovely). And some function as both an adverb and an adjective.

And Jean Weber cites Carol Luers Eyman:

“Many style books recommend against the hyphen after adverbs ending in ‘ly,’ and I followed the rule blindly for years before the reasoning behind it became clear to me one day: adverbs ending in ‘ly’ always modify the word immediately following them, so they don’t require a hyphen to indicate which word they modify (‘neatly dressed woman,’ ‘hastily prepared remarks,’ ‘readily available materials’).

“But in sentences with compound adjectives, the first adjective sometimes modifies the next word and sometimes modifies a later word. For example, in ‘small college professor’ the word ‘small’ might modify ‘college’ but it could also modify ‘professor.’ If the former is true, adding a hyphen after ‘small’ makes the meaning clear.”

So the so-called "rule" against hyphenating after adverbs ending in -ly is as clear-cut as the United States tax code.

Next, I'll look for people who disagree with the revisions to Robert's Rules of Order.
blog comments powered by Disqus