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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 66: Hyphens Help Avoid Ambiguity

From an online article:

"I looked at the biggest selling albums of all time in America."

When I first read this, I mistook "biggest" as a description of size, not as it was intended: as an intensifier meaning most. In cases where your sentence could be misread, I recommend using a hyphen to avoid ambiguity:

"I looked at the biggest-selling albums of all time in America."

Another example that could be misleading if you don't use a hyphen:

The man eating lion returned home.

Does this mean that a man who was eating lion went home? Probably not. If you write "man-eating" then you remove all doubt.


Anonymous said...

"I looked at the biggest selling albums of all time in America."

In the olden days, grammatically this was very clear—biggest is modifying selling—currently written as biggest-selling.

"I looked at the biggest, selling albums of all time in America."

Using the comma clearly meant that biggest was modifying albums, i.e., the physical size of the album.

But the grammar powers have switched to using hyphens, probably because the commas were being left out or inserted incorrectly. Now, many people hyphenate everything and it seems more confusing than ever.

Now where did diagramming sentences go?

The Sentence Sleuth said...

It's true that there are some people who like to overuse hyphens. I might even be guilty of that myself. One of my clients has called me the Hyphen Queen. But I still feel that hyphens used in the right places make it easier for readers to follow the sentence.
Which hyphens confuse you? Maybe I can help un-confuse you.