April 7, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphenation again & surveille

Posted in hyphen, hyphen/compound words, surveille/surveil at 9:22 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Hyphenation again

A reader writes:

One of our faculty wants new business cards to include her new title of Co-Director.  I put in the request for her with that spelling and hyphenation.  Our print shop returned the cards with the title “Codirector.” I wrote to them and said we wanted the  title written as requested but they retorted, “Codirector is the correct spelling of the word, there is no hyphen. We cannot knowingly print a misspelling on University materials.”

A google search seems to show far wider usage of Co-Director and to me it is clearer, but is it truly incorrect?  Also, notably – when I tried to send this email my spell check kept telling me “Codirector” was misspelled, but “Co-Director” was not!

P.S.  I feel like you need a superhero cape for occasions like this, “WLUT to the rescue!”

I’ll share the quick answer I gave this reader, and then, I’ll give a little bit more information on using hyphens.

This is what I wrote to the reader:

You are right, and the print shop is wrong. There are a couple of reasons (besides the fact that it just looks wrong): first, you always hyphenate the ‘co’ before a proper noun, in this case, director is capitalized (at least it was before the print shop messed with it), and second, you always use the hyphen if there is a chance of mispronunciation—the example one sees is co-worker not cow-orker. In this case, there is a chance it is pronounced cod-irector. That is why there is always a hyphen in Co-Investigator, so it is not confused with coin-vestigator. Finally, use of hyphen is almost always a matter of style and not rules (there are a couple of exceptions), so it is Co-Director and Co-Investigator in the style of academic medicine and that of NIH and DHHS.

I’ll add just a little bit more. Hyphens are much in the news these days. The AP Stylebook has been making headlines for its daring decision to eliminate the hyphen in ‘e-mail’ and use ’email’ instead. (Don’t worry, traditionalists, the Chicago Manual of Style and the New York Times have declined to go along with this new-fangled style and will continue to use the hyphen in ‘e-mail.’)

Jan Freeman, in a recent column of The Word, tackled the use of hyphens and noted that language, like clothing style, is ever changing, and there’s no point in getting in a tizzy about it. I tend to agree, in large part…I still have a thing about using ‘impact’ as a verb, and I can’t seem to get over that, but that’s another story.

Speaking of hyphens, a reader wrote:

Is this an ok hyphenated verb??

“I have first-authored over twenty papers…”

I don’t see anything wrong with this phrasing although a more formal approach would be to say, “I am the first author of over twenty papers…” I would probably say ‘more than’ instead of ‘over,’ but that has more to do with how I was taught than the rules of grammar. Since ‘author’ is as perfectly fine as a verb as it is as a noun, and since the first author is especially important in academia, I have no issue with ‘first-authored.’

But some might blink at the use of ‘ok’ here. While ‘ok’ is MUCH less formal than ‘okay,’ and ‘okay’ is pretty informal in its own right, ‘ok’ is considered standard and is okay. Really.

But as an adjective preceding a noun? Well, yes again; however, this harks back to the changing nature of language—[NOTE that I said changing and not evolving for those of you who learned another way and are gasping in agony right now]—just as someone can be an ‘okay’ person, I think it is okay to have an ‘ok hyphenated verb.’ I also don’t object—anymore—to someone having a ‘fun’ time, but remember, this is all for casual usage—I never want to see any of this language in a grant proposal or a manuscript.

And finally, there’s ‘ok hyphenated verb.’ So shouldn’t ‘hyphenated’ and ‘verb’ be, well, hyphenated? Well no. Remember when I said hyphenating is largely a matter of style not rules? This is one of the exceptions: Use a hyphen in a compound word that is serving as an adjective, but don’t use a hyphen in a compound word that is serving as a noun. ‘Hyphenated verb’ is serving as a ‘noun.’  The language in this wlut can make you dizzy, but, with any luck, you’ve got the point. Ok?

If you want to read more on using hyphens, here are some previous wlut issues about hyphens: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/hyphen/, https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/hyphencompound-words/, and https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/hyphens-and-prefixes/.

Tip 2: Surveille

A reader writes:

Here’s a pet peeve: use of “surveilled” instead of surveyed, or reviewed, or observed, or….

I found this in one of the online dictionaries–which pleased me no end–is there more to say?

Word Origin & History


1802, from Fr. surveillance  “oversight, supervision, a watch,” noun of action from surveiller  “oversee, watch,” from sur-  “over” + veiller  “to watch,” from L. vigilare,  from vigil  “watchful” (see vigil). Seemingly a word of the Terror in France. A hideous back-formation, surveille  (v.), was coined in 1960 in U.S. government jargon. Pray that it dies.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Well, I won’t go as far as praying that it dies; it’s not worth that amount of emotion I think. But I agree with the writer that it is not an apt synonym for ‘survey,’ ‘review’ or ‘observe.’ And the word is a backformation of surveillance.

I have mixed feelings, here. First, although coined in the 60s, it has yet to make it to dictionaries, so the reader is in her rights to disavow its use or consider it anathema. And I entirely agree that it should not be used to describe our scientific or medical research—it holds an implication of spying or scrutinizing very closely, perhaps too closely. But I hesitate condemning the word altogether. And that is because two of my favorite word mavens support its use.

In 1995, William Safire wrote, “In an age of snooping, the word fills a void in the language.” And more recently, in his 2009 Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner wrote, “Surveil (or surveille) is a relatively new, and decidedly useful, verb corresponding to the noun surveillance.”

Personally, I have never found a reason to use it all—in writing or in conversation. Nor have I seen it used  in grant proposals or other documents. (That probably explains some of my ambivalence—if I had seen it used in our formal writing on a regular basis as our reader obviously has, I would probably have stronger feelings.)

But I feel comfortable saying this: Don’t use ‘surveille’ to describe what you are doing (or have done) as part of scientific research. I guarantee you that there is a better word choice.

1 Comment »

  1. Holly Staats said,

    “Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic article.Really thank you! Awesome.”

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