June 2, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphens for clarity & prescriptive grammar and only

Posted in hyphen, only, prescriptive grammar at 5:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Using hyphens for clarity

A reader writes:

I am pained by what I have come across recently in clinical notes—mostly from residents:

The patient was just discharged and then ‘represented’ to the hospital with same complaints. The author is trying to say re-presented (or came back). Just today I read another version—the catheter was loose, so it was ‘replaced’- not that it was replaced but placed again.

Is this usage as wrong as it seems to me?


 We’ve talked about hyphens a few times now, but I am happy to give it another go because I have strong feelings for hyphens. In fact, an impetus to starting the WLUT was my mourning the loss of the hyphen. I believed that folks had stopped using the hyphen as often as they should, and, since it is a very handy piece of punctuation when put to good use, I wanted to promote its use.

And while the reader points a finger at residents, I think my concerns apply to everyone.

This email clearly illustrates the need for hyphens. Hyphens should be used to avoid confusion and to produce clarity. This is why they are needed in the reader’s note—to avoid confusing represented with re-presented and to avoid confusing replaced with re-placed. There are other words which require the use of hyphens to ensure clarity of meaning:

re-sign or resign

re-creation or recreation

re-form or reform

re-cover or recover

 You get the idea. The hyphen, used in this way, is very powerful and deserves our respect. I don’t want to mourn it anymore; I want to applaud it for its ability to provide precision and clarity. Go hyphen!

Tip 2: Prescriptive grammar & only

A reader writes:

I have a question concerning the use of the adverb “only” in Tip 1.  There, our writer says, “… the exception is afterward which only works as an adverb” and “… the words can only be used as adverbs.”  Shouldn’t “only” be placed after “works” and after “used” in those respective sentences?  I learned–a very long time ago–that “only” should adjoin the word or words that it limits.

By the way, in the first of these two items, we need a comma after the antecedent “afterward,” since what follows is a nonrestrictive phrase.

 Where to place ‘only’ is the topic of an argument among grammarians that has been going on for centuries. Some say that ‘only’ should immediately precede the word or phrase that it is modifying, and so in the reader’s example, the writer should have written:

… the exception is afterward which works only as an adverb

… the words can be used only  as adverbs

 Others think that it doesn’t matter where ‘only’ goes as long as the meaning of the sentence is clear.

I am of that school. My goal is to communicate clearly; I’m not the grammar police (although I know it may seem like that sometimes). Even the great Fowler and Garner are on different sides of the fence on this (Fowler being the more liberal this time around).

And for the same reason, I don’t adhere to the prescriptivist’s rule that a comma must precede ‘which’ and a nonrestrictive phrase as noted in the reader’s second comment. I’m with those who don’t worry too much about the distinction between ‘which’ and ‘that.’

I suppose this calls for a word on prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar lays down rules for how the language is used. Descriptive grammar bases the rules on how the language is actually used. I don’t fall completely in either camp. I don’t completely buy the prescriptive grammar based on some set of rules because there are lots of rules that are often discrepant, and how do we determine the “true” rule? How many times have I written, “This argument has been going on for centuries”? On the other hand, I probably lean towards prescriptive grammar because there are lot of ‘rules’ that I follow and recommend that you follow, too.  My bottom line is to follow the rules that lead to clear communication, and don’t worry too much about the others.

Okay, class dismissed.


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