[LMB] another hyphenation dilemma

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Mon Sep 28 18:22:14 BST 2015

Sherwooding ...

Lois feels grey to be more nominal than adjectival, pondering horses of
that ilk, but actually all such colour designations for horses (grey, roan,
chestnut, liver) are adjectives that have become nouns through shortening :
a grey horse > a grey &c..

Hilary points out that in English very many words can, in different
contexts, be different parts of speech, and that grey may variously be an
adjective, a noun, and a verb, but is unlikely to be a preposition or
conjunction. Or a pronoun or article, but with -ly it can be an adverb, and
it might be an interjection : "Damn! Grey! Blast! I won't have that in this
house." (And 'that' can, of course, be an adjective, an adverb, a
demonstrative or relative pronoun, or a subordinating conjunction.)

Micki cites Grammar Girl's belief that a compound adjective used
predicatively should not be hyphenated. I think Grammar Girl has confused
the conventions applying to compound adjectives and compound nouns, or
unilaterally extended the latter to the former. Under no circumstance would
I write 'fire proof'.

Micki also delves into adjectival order and commas, citing the Chicago
Manual and a website. The site deals with adjectival order rather well, but
for the commas I prefer the formulation in the Oxford Manual (better than
Chicago anyway), which says:

'Separate a sequence of adjectives by commas when each adjective modifies
the noun and could otherwise be followed by *and* [...] Omit the comma when
each adjective modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the
subsequent adjective(s) and noun [...] There is a limit to how many
adjectives can be added before punctuation is needed for clarity.'

Which last point goes to the heart, for the trump card is clarity, and
punctuation does *not* have rules, as mathematics has rules, but has sets
or repertoires of conventions that vary over place and time, and may
overlap and clash as well as evolve.


In classical antiquity scribes did not supply any punctuation ; that was
the prerogative of the reader.

Cicero and Quintilian formulated the convention of analysis *per cola et
commata*, by cola and commata, whereby marks called colons and commas were
used to break a period into its constituent cola and commata. The available
set of forms of punctuation then comprised the comma, colon, period, and
paragraph, later with the *punctus interrogativus* (?) and *punctus
admirativus* (!), with a few special sorts (as the obelus, indicating a
passage deemed corrupt).

Word-separation was introduced in the late C7 and C8 by Irish scribes
glossing scripture, and adopted by Carolingian scribes who disseminated it
widely. Said scribes also came up with *litterae notabiliores*, more
noticeable letters > capitals -- with love and gunpowder, one of the three
most dangerous inventions of the mediaeval period.

For centuries punctuation development in the West was driven almost
entirely by monastic scriptoria, and a wide range of repertoires developed
using the punctus and attached minim strokes in differing positions and
orientations. What each means can only be inferred in the immediate context
of the specific document, with the wider context of the particular scribe
and/or scriptorium that produced it.

Then came Humanism. The exclamation-mark was given its present form by
Iacopo Alpoleia da Urbisaglia in the 1360s ; lunulae (= round brackets)
were devised by Colluccio Salutati in the 1390s ; and the semi-colon was
invented by Pietro, Cardinal Bembo in the 1490s. All were disseminated
primarily in print.

After that development became quite speedy, and by the later C16 and C17
differentiated brackets (round, square, curly) and forms of the dash and
ellipsis were in use, while diples (double marginal marks) were being used
to indicate speech or quotation, and were beginning to be used with the
measure (becoming inverted commas). Nevertheless, lengths of rule were not
sorted until the C18 and C19, nor inverted commas until the C19, nor forms
of ellipsis until the C19 and C20. Moreover, between the later C18 and the
earlier C20 there were also the combinate marks, joining a dash to any of a
period, comma, semi-colon, colon, lunula, question-mark, or
exclamation-mark : no-one really knows where they came from or why they
died away (though it is probably significant that they flourish most
vigorously when the printed page is most illegible, with small type, narrow
margins, and minimal leading [= interline spacing]).

New marks and new conventions continue to develop (hello emoticons), and
old ones to fade or change (as we see witnessing the death of the
possessive apostrophe, though not the enclitic one).


So it's no good wanting rules, and a bad idea to make them up ; ask rather,
what set of conventions is it helpful or for whatever reason necessary to
follow? Find the relevant authority (I use Oxford). And be prepared always
to put clarity before consistency.

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

General editor, Humanities-E-Books Genre Fiction Sightlines and Monographs

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