'Times' Guilty Of Crimes Against Punctuation

In re. the Times getting cute about grammar: did you know that while they run one of the very few regular columns in a major publication on language and usage, the New York Times is guilty of ignoring the en dash? It's shocking, but true. In fact, we received a huge and comprehensive letter to the Times about this disgusting display of grammatical ineptitude, in response to a recent William Safire column about the slow death (or evolution!) of the hyphen. It is amazing, it is long, and because the Times would never print it in its entirety, it is after the jump. NB: We have no clue how to use an en dash.

Update: Following a gently critical email from Mr. Ekman, we have attempted to recreate his proper use of em and en dashes.


William Safire's send-up of "postpartisan" politics and their nomenclature marks a notable improvement on the last major Times entry on the hyphenation beat, Charles McGrath's ill-begotten musings from October 7, "Death-Knell. Or Death Knell." Where McGrath smugly assumed, on the basis of the OED's sudden elimination of 16,000 antiquated hyphens ("bumblebee," "crybaby" — musty forms viscerally awkward in Century 21), the wholesale erosion of the hyphen as such, without regard for context, function, or flavor, Safire is more in tune with the incremental nature of punctuational change: when tentative and new, a term might carry a hyphen, then surrender it with increasing familiarity. McGrath evinced a muted recognition of this process, yet the uptake of his piece — O, controversy! — was, repulsively, that a macro-level flight from the hyphen would prevent new new terms from ever starting out with one.

Safire knows, as McGrath doesn't, that not all hyphens are created equal: the grammatical and the stylistic kinds are simply not subject to the same tectonic forces. His parenthetical is comforting: the just among us, and the strong, speak of ice-cream trucks, hot-dog stands, and, yes, hat-trick hyphenated usages. The sort of hyphens that birth compound adjectives belong to a qualitatively different category from those cobbling together neologisms; if they are to disappear, it will be for reasons unaligned with the puncture of "water-beds."

Yet Safire is entirely too content to guard his impish dance on "post[-]partisanship" behind the slogan of "style, not grammar." A slew of factors constrain our punctuation, liberating though the mirage of free choice may seem. Of course the hyphen in "post-partisan" is immaterial; the hyphen is really no more there in any essential way than the hyphen that could crop up at a line break between syllables. But this ambiguous presence does not authorize the term's division into "post partisan": while the base "partisan" may trace its lineage to the Latin, it is not a term directly plucked from Latin in the way that "partum," another of Safire's examples, most assuredly is. Foreign terms remain unhyphenated — a priori, bona fide, and so on — even when modifying; they are outside the realm of our punctuational caprice.

Safire seems so eager, in fact, to tie the lesson into a neat hat trick and be done with it (or simply blockaded by a word limit — shame in either case) that he misfires irrevocably when it comes to the 2006 Times quote on Barack Obama. The third term, "post-baby boom," is indeed awkward: the meaning is distorted and divorced from the intent, and we're left squawking about "post-babies." Certainly, this "hyphen before a phrase" does not accomplish everything we had hoped.

But it happens that we already have a punctuation mark for precisely such a situation: the en dash. En dashes operate in three main contexts: ranges (2001–08; A–Z), substitutes for hyphens when multiple words are linked on one side (post–baby boom; pre–World War II; trans fat–free), and the non-hierarchical yet dynamic linkage of terms in the spirit of "and," "with," "to," or "versus" (see Safire's egregious fourth paragraph: it should be "Ford–Carter," just as it would be "U.S.–Mexico," "Giants–Patriots," "military–industrial," and so on). Longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash, the kind that signals a pause in speech, the en dash is a powerful tool, albeit one foreign to The Times (and, unthinkably, even the Magazine — glossies across the board employ it). So what we are left with is not a question of hyphen versus no hyphen – the care[-]free situation of "postpartisan" – but rather hyphen versus en dash. Safire misdiagnoses the source of "post-baby boom"'s awkwardness. For intuitive reasons, no one would consider writing "postbaby boom." His following sentence, regarding the Washington news media, is an utter non sequitur; it operates along an unrelated axis.

Whether the fundamental blame rests on Safire or his crusty (copy)editors might seem purely academic, but the fifth paragraph dispels any doubts: the author appears in willful oblivion of the fertile crossroads of style and grammar, and ultimately unconcerned with questions of the distribution of meaning, a fact which alone disqualifies him from writing on this topic in the first place. Safire's introduction of "bi-partisanship" quietly presents a foil to his stated ruminations on the "post-partisan" condition. The problem is the "-ship" bringing up the rear. When only one hyphen lurks in an expression, it always imposes a bifurcation in how we parse the meaning. Here, "bipartisanship," unhyphenated, carries a special ambiguity. Imagine a silenced hyphen before "ship": we have three units of meaning to reckon with, and as a result the hyphen after "bi" is not purely stylistic. "Bi-partisanship," strictly, denotes a state of two partisanships, not a state of bipartisan politics or feeling. ("Postpartisanship" is relatively unproblematic: the situation described is both a situation ("ship") in which a type of politics called "postpartisan" prevail and a time or situation past the concept of "partisanship.") If we are committed for stylistic reasons always to insert a hyphen after a prefix, and if we also mean to describe a state of bipartisan attitudes, then perhaps an en dash would be most appropriate: bi–partisan-ship.

This may be moot beneath the paper's tyranny of typesetting, a consistently vague and undemocratic campaign to foist the hyphen upon en dash–appropriate contexts, but it is not insignificant in a broader sense. Safire has so assimilated the publication's ideological apparatus — if there is no en dash, all is permitted — as to reproduce similar fraught hierarchies within apparently neutral illustrative examples. He may himself write this off as so much speculation, a mere artifact of The Times' punctuational inertia, but this would be to surrender responsibility for what amounts not simply to a slackening, but to a new and frightful hierarchy of meaning.

Peter Ekman

Postpartisan [NYT]
Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location [NYT]
Earlier: 'Times' Excited By Proper Punctuation