March 8, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Hyphens & adverbs

Posted in adverbs, hyphen at 7:06 am by dlseltzer


Okay, I think we have firmly established my geek credentials, so it couldn’t make it worse for me to admit that I am on an IRB-related mailing list (IRBforum). The reason I mention this is that earlier this week, I saw a message that started this way:

I am the secretary of a hospital system IRB.  We have been trialing the use of Central IRBs for oversight of studies conducted within our hospital system…

Trialing. Really?

Tip 1: Using hyphens

A reader writes:

I had a question on how to determine when a hyphen is needed for a word such as “audio-record” or “audio recording?”

We continue to struggle with this. Here are some previous discussions on the topic: I think the problem might be that there is no hard and fast rule, and we do much better when there are stringent rules to follow. When to hyphenate is largely a matter of style, and there is no right way or wrong way—with two exceptions—when two or more words function as an adjective preceding a noun (this is called a phrasal adjective for those who like to know these things), the words in the adjective always should be hyphenated. For example:

We wanted to examine how different hospitals supported end-of-life care.

The physician believed the family member’s decision-making capacity was deteriorating.

On the other hand, if the words are used as a noun, there is no need for any hyphen:

There are a variety of means of ensuring appropriate treatment at the end of life.

We have to consider all of the factors that contribute to effective decision making in emergency situations.

The other exception is this: when it is impossible to determine the meaning of a word without the hyphen, then the hyphen is required. For example:

The gray-haired grandfather decided it was time to resign, so when they asked him to re-sign the contract, he declined.

We decided to re-cover the old sofa, and it was exciting to see how it resulted in the room’s recovery.

My style, and my recommendation to you, is to use the hyphen as a default, especially in words with prefixes.

The politicians considered the opposition to be anti-American.

The ex-senator from Pennsylvania is hoping to move to the White House.

(Hmm, can you tell this is an election year in the US?)

I consider ‘audio’ to be a prefix (although I recognize that some may not), so I would use the hyphen in ‘audio-record.’ The other way to handle it is to merge the two words into one—’audiorecord,’ and I expect that this melding will occur eventually as it has with so many other words (e.g., extraordinary, preordained, unsatisfactory, preshrunk).

My general feeling about using the hyphen is that if we intend the words to be used together, let’s link them with the hyphen.

But rejoice that besides the two rules above, you can do whatever you like.

Except this: Choose a style and use it consistently. I don’t want to see audio-record and audio record in the same manuscript! Inconsistency in language use makes my head explode, and I know you don’t want to see that.

Tip 2: Adverbs 

A reader writes:

I am in the middle of writing a discussion for a paper and had a question:

Is it right to say, “ …because women are waiting longer to have children” or  is it “ .. women are  waiting later to have children”

Please advise.

When I checked the index of the wlut blog, I was pretty stunned to find that I hadn’t written much, if anything, about adverbs. That’s good, because that means that either 1) you are using them correctly or 2) you are not using them at all. I expect that it is the former.

So, that being the case, I’ll just summarize briefly. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Actually, they can modify most anything but nouns. They usually answer the question of when, how, where, how often, or how much.

In the reader’s example, we need an adverb to modify the verb phrase, ‘are waiting.’ Both ‘longer’ and ‘later’ can be adjectives or adverbs, but ‘longer’ means (at least one of its meanings is) ‘for an extended time’ and ‘later’ means ‘subsequently’ and implies more immediacy. So, if I have the gist of the sentence, the correct word choice would be ‘longer,’ and the phrase would read:

…because women are waiting longer to have children…

That’s it. I think we do a pretty good job with adverbs.


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