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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More Hyphens — Or, Possibly, Fewer

When I alluded previously to my fondness for mockery of the prescriptivist hordes, I was thinking primarily of individuals. There exist, though, many groups of like-minded souls who've come together to form organisations like the Queen's English Society (their URL has no apostrophe in "Queen's". That must really burn them). These punctilious protectors of punctuation have been "concerned about the decline in standards in the use of English for many years" and who can blame them? English as she is spoke has been under attack for centuries from enemies foreign and domestic.

A few things struck me immediately about their front page. Now, I know what you're thinking. That I'm referring to the fact that they have images on the page that are nothing but text, intended to do nothing more than show that they're very bad at anti-aliasing. Surely, you say, the standards of web design — especially with the advent of CSS — make such things unnecessary and, even, undesirable? Surely it would be hypocrisy for them to rail over the misuse of standards in one language while egregiously flouting those of another, albeit one that's machine-based?

No, friends, that is not what I was pondering. And shame on you for even thinking it.

I was thinking about hyphens.

First of all, our friends' name. The Queen's English Society. Surely they're a society dedicated to the Queen's English, and should therefore be the Queen's-English Society? It's possible that they have a royal charter and are merely a society dedicated to English, but that's not the impression I get from their pages.

Secondly, let us look at the phrase
 Yes. I'm as shocked as you are. They're using hyphens when they should be using dashes. We shall overlook the bad phraseology and instead stare, aghast, at such sloppiness.

And... can it be? Yes, they did it again. In the image, this time, with the phrase "Our language-our future". Another hyphen. Their cunning trick of not putting spaces around it fooled, I'm sure, no one. And it betrays a shocking lack of consistency, given that there were spaces around the previous usurping hyphens.

But perhaps I'm being overly critical. After all, who knows if these really are the official rules of grammar? Not I. I've learned them through experience and study over the years, but unless the origin of the rule is known, it could be something Dryden came up with in a drunken fit one night. Perhaps we should be more forgiving of the Queen's English Society? And, after all, the hyphen is on the keyboard, whereas a dash must be inserted via HTML entity or some UTF-8 trickery.

Of course we should. To do otherwise would be petty.

But there's one point about the above phrase I'd like to briefly comment on. This is a trivial and quibbling example, but one that is symptomatic of a larger disease. "The world uses it", we are told. What does "it" refer to? Good English? If the world uses good English, why the need for the QES? The "it" doesn't really refer to anything. And yes, we know what they mean. Their intention is clear, even if their phrasing is inelegant. If you do read a screed from some prescriptivist chap, he'll be using impeccable grammar. But chances are he'll have given considerably less thought to the way his perfectly-parsed phrases go together.

Some day I plan to open my own prescriptivist organisation. We happy few shall rigidly enforce the rules of English but, more importantly, shall use only those rules that have been strictly laid down by common consent for many centuries, and shall heap opprobrium on those who insist that infinitives shall never be split.

Our days shall be filled with spirited debates on the origin and validity of the dictum that a pronoun preceding a gerund should be in the possessive. We shall sip tea as we consider the relative merits of the em- and en-dashes. Yes, friends, the National Institute of Pedants and Prescriptivists Learning English Syntax shall be a haven in this frenetic world for those who want to sit back and, like their peers in so many other such organisations, quibble over minutiae. It'll be great.

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