Archive for May, 2013

The Mad Dash, the End of the Hyphen, and the Tree of Information

May 17, 2013

Just the other day, I read two articles online about vanishing punctuation marks, the exclamation point and the apostrophe to be specific.  The culprit in the case of the apostrophe is The Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which was set up in 1890 by President Benjamin Harrison.  The article proposing abolition of the exclamation point has vanished into the mists of the internet since I first saw it.

For the fate of the hyphen, see  It’s the hyphen I would miss most.  Back in the early 1980s, when I was a federal employee myself, I chanced across an article about another hapless fed who lost his job for ordering “forty eight foot lengths” of steel piping.  What the job required, apparently, was forty pieces of pipe, each eight feet long.  What he got was forty-eight pieces of pipe, each one a foot long.  What he really needed, obviously, was a hyphen.

During the same period of employment, I kept having to read regulations about “PCB containing oil.”  What the authors of the regs meant was oil that contained PCB (a bad thing, in great need of regulation.)  What I could not keep myself from imagining was PCB that contained oil, a bewildering substance at best.  At roughly the same time, our local auto parts store was trying to sell me seat covers of “leather like vinyl.”  I assume they meant vinyl that resembled leather, but it sure looked like leather resembling vinyl.

Back when I was an English teacher, many of my students were techies, right-brain types who were better with graphs and numbers than with words.  In the course of teaching them, I discovered a couple of useful things.  One was that techies love diagramming sentences.  Probably reminds them of flow charts.  The other was that the hyphen serves an essentially algebraic purpose.  It links together a sequence of words that would not normally follow each other in a standard subject-verb-object, modifier-modifier-noun sentence order. It is thus a clue that what we have here is not the standard SVO/MMN word order.    Thus, a large person with homicidal tendencies is a “giant killer,” while a person who kills large people is a “giant-killer.”  It gives the reader more information. 

Finally, my very earliest discovery as an English teacher/proof-reader/copy-editor/blogger/lawyer was the Murphy’s Law that operates in communication: if anything can possibly be misinterpreted, it will be.  The job of the aspiring copy-editor-etc. is to read a text looking for any possible way to misinterpret it, and then to eliminate that possibility by skilful redrafting.  If we are to dispense with the hyphen, that job will be made harder.  Instead of “forty eight foot lengths” or the formerly preferred “forty eight-foot lengths”, we will have to say “forty pieces of ________, each eight feet long;” instead of “Jack the Giant Killer,” something like “Jack, the killer of giants,” and so on.

Getting back to the use of punctuation to provide information on how to interpret a locution, back in the good old days there was no punctuation.  Back in the really old days, there weren’t even any divisions between words.  “Therapist” could be either a headshrinker or “the rapist.”  “Literally” could be either not figuratively, or “lite rally,” (as opposed to a heavy rally?) “Together”/ to get her.  And so on.  This was the form in which both the original text of the Bible and texts of classics like Homer first appeared.  Today, while we are busily dropping apostrophes, hyphens, and exclamation points, we are at least keeping word divisions, commas (though fewer of them than our ancestors) and periods.  And vowels, except in the Semitic languages and Speedwriting (remember Speedwriting?)  Marshall McLuhan’s theory about all this (although so far as I know, he never applied it to Semitic languages or classical texts) was that there is a crucial difference between “hot” and “cool” media of communication.  “Hot” media provide just about all the information the reader/listener needs to interpret clearly.  There is no room for bloopers, puns, or poetic ambiguity.  “Cool” media require the reader/listener to supply some of the information. This gets her more involved in the process of interacting with the medium.  It may be a more effective form of communication. That is, it changes the person who reads or listens.  It conveys knowledge, not merely information.

What’s the difference between knowledge and information?  Knowledge transforms the person who acquires it.  (Martin Buber says that in any serious relationship, between persons, between a person and the Holy One, between a person and a religious tradition, each of the parties accepts the possibility of being changed in and by the relationship.)  Information, on the other hand, can be transmitted from one person to another, and another, and another, in discrete packages that need never be unwrapped, capsules whose contents need never be digested. 

To put it another way, nobody reads a phone book or a dictionary or an encyclopedia from cover to cover.  You look up the particular piece of information you need, find it, appropriate it, use it for your predetermined purpose, and then go on to the next one.  Now that we have “cut-and-paste” in our word processors, we can do it without even reading the info packet first. We can even create a program to do it for us.

If Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Information, we would all still be living in Eden.  The point of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was that it transformed those who ate from it.  It transformed Adam and Eve so much that the Holy One could tell right away by looking at them (or trying to—they hid themselves because they had discovered they were naked.)

 Back in the 1960s when the National Student Association, a CIA front, was operating on various Ivy League campuses, members who knew about the CIA link referred to each other as “witty.”  If you were a member of a CIA front and knew it, you had become a different person.   To us today, that link has no particular personal meaning; it is now mere information.  But at the time, being a knowing member of a CIA-front organization made you a very different person from most of your classmates or fellow alumni. 

 Effective use of hyphens (and apostrophes) makes our language a “hotter” medium of information.  It prevents ambiguity (intentional or unintentional.)  As an editor/English teacher and so on, I’m all for that.  It minimizes the effect of Murphy’s Law on communication.  But the Buddhists tell us that confusion is fruitful, that ambiguity creates possibility.  Maybe as an occasional poet, I’m not so keen on the hyphen?  Maybe we should be working our way back to the original texts, without punctuation, word divisions, or vowels?  Thisdeservesfurtherthought.  In fact, thsdsrvsfrthrthght.

 Jane Grey