February 21, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphen/compound words, get

Posted in get, hyphen/compound words at 8:35 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1

Compound words are two or more words strung together to produce a singular meaning. (For some reason, the word, “healthcare,” comes to mind as an example.) Compound words can be made by: 1) joining two words to make one word, and this usage usually evolves over time (e.g., bench mark > benchmark); 2) using a hyphen to link the words (e.g., well-being, wake-up); and 3) putting two words together separated by a space to create a single concept usually used to modify a noun (e.g., the medical school faculty (medical school being the compound adjective), health department officials (health department being the compound adjective).

Compound words can be either adjectives, adverbs, nouns, or verbs.

Compound adjectives are usually hyphenated when they add clarity and modify a noun (e.g., “the little-understanding patients” (meaning the patients who do not understand much) versus “the little understanding patients,” which is more ambiguous (meaning the patients who do not understand much OR or the short patients who understand).

Compound adverbs ending in “ly” are rarely hyphenated (e.g., the highly respected physician, the poorly thought of treatment plan); however, compound adverbs that do not end in “ly” are often hyphenated (e.g., the most-effective treatment, a much-loved chief).

The use of hyphens in compound nouns is largely a matter of taste, style or convention (e.g., band-aid, front line, birthrate). When a compound word is used as an adjective, hyphens are generally used; when used as a noun, they are not. The examples below are derived from the writing with which we are often involved. (NOTE: Since the prepositional phrase did not seem awkward to me, I followed the tradition of not ending a sentence with a preposition.)
Example 1:

We need to support end-of-life care.
We need to support care provided at the end of life.

Example 2:

The medical decision-making process is very complex.
Formal rules for medical decision making would improve treatment recommendations.
Compound verbs can be hyphenated, one word, or two words separated by a space (e.g., to double-space, to proofread, to play down [as opposed to downplay which tends to be one word]); however, the way the word is constructed can change its meaning.

Example 3:
People, we need to break through their defenses!
This is the scientific breakthrough we have been waiting for!
The use of the hyphen in a compound word aims to improve clarity.
Example 4:

This hospital has the most skilled physicians. (usually interpreted as ‘”This hospital has the largest number of skilled physicians.”)

This hospital has the most-skilled physicians. (usually interpreted as ‘”This hospital has the most adept/able physicians.”)
There is much more to celebrate about the hyphen, but this is a start.

Tip 2.

Our second tip comes from Mark Roberts (be still my heart), a man who has never let the rules of punctuation and grammar get between him and his manuscript.

Mark told me he gets irritated when he sees the word “get” in formal writing. I replied that I really get annoyed when people do that. We use the word “get” all of the time–in oral communication and email; however, Mark is correct (okay, calm down, it had to happen sometime): the word “get” should NEVER be used in formal writing and that includes grant proposals and manuscripts. There is always another, more appropriate word to use in formal writing.

I got the abstracts for our lit search > I received (or found) the articles for our lit search.
I don’t get it > I don’t understand.
That could get a little complicated > That could become a little complicated.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the word “get.” I need the word “get’.” I will use the word “get” all of the time EXCEPT in formal writing. The regular sources I check were strangely silent on this issue; even the Chicago Manual of Style did not chime in. I was able, however, to find one site that addressed the issue and thankfully, it affirmed this point. The article was aimed at copywriters and is so straightforward that I will let it speak for itself (reference, below).

“This issue’s article is about that miserable, sloppy, characterless word, ‘get.’

During my last class of high school, my history teacher said, “And one last thing. Don’t use the word ‘get’ in your essays. There’s always another word that will work harder.” That’s the only comment he ever made that wasn’t directly related to history. And it’s the only thing he said that I can remember.

He was right. ‘Get’ is passive, feeble, limp, flabby and gutless. It hints at action, but communicates almost nothing.

Here are some phrases that include this poor excuse for a word.

– You will get your card in two to three weeks.
– Get your free membership now!
– With the Zippy CD player you get the best performance for a great price.

Now we’ll replace ‘get’ and see what happens…

– You will receive your card in two to three weeks.
– Apply for your free membership now!
– With the Zippy CD player you will enjoy the best performance for a great price.

No, these are not great or thrilling copy lines. But they each work a little better with the replacement of the word ‘get’.

With ‘receive’, ‘apply’ and ‘enjoy’ you can close your eyes and visualize these actions to some degree. Now try to visualize the action of ‘get’. Draw a blank? I do. In fact, I can think of only one instance where ‘get’ carries any punch or power. And that is in phrases like…

Get stuffed. Get knotted. Get a life. Get out of my face.

Get it?”

(Usborne, N. Excess Voice:Nick Usborne’s Blog about Online Copywriting & Optimization, http://www.excessvoice.com/issue12.htm, July, 2002.

Enough said. Have a great week.

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