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No harm in the hyphen

25th February 2014

The current trend is to avoid using the hyphen because it creates unnecessary clutter on a page.

I couldn't agree more that over-punctuation is a big problem that can ruin the clarity of a piece of writing. A colon with a dash ( : - ) or using italics and punctuation marks at the same time ("This is just too much") are prime examples of a common problem with business communications.

But hyphens are useful grammatical tools and I think we should all appreciate their value.

They avoid problems with 'letter collision' in words such as co-ordinate (coordinate) and they help us understand what the writer is trying to say.

Two hundred-year-old trees (two trees that are a hundred years old) is different from two hundred year-old trees (two hundred trees that are only one year old). Without the hyphen, how would we know?

I agree that dropping hyphens when phrases are fully integrated into the language can be good practice - email is much better than e-mail, for example - but there will always be a role for the hyphen and I, for one, give it my wholehearted support.

Shirley Carnegie

Don't shoot the metaphor!

25th February 2014

Although I'm the first to agree that office show-offs can be immensely irritating with their self-conscious management-speak, I can't thinking that we're in danger of suppressing the natural evolution of language if we try to stamp out new, creative ways of saying things.

For example, what's wrong with 'blue-sky thinking' and 'thinking outside the box'?

Blue-sky thinking means thinking clearly without prejudice and without being clouded by negative assumptions. I reckon it does exactly what it says on the tin – to coin another popular phrase.

Thinking outside the box was introduced in the 1970s to challenge people to think differently and approach problems and ideas in a new and unimpeded way. That's a good thing in my book.

We've been using metaphors and euphemisms for so long that many have passed into common usage without us even thinking about it. We now use phrases such as 'domino effect', 'plain sailing' and 'elephant in the room' without confusing or offending anyone.

I would suggest that it's not the metaphor that's the culprit here, but the person delivering it. Ricky Gervais' genius portrayal of David Brent in The Office first alerted us to the office show-off. David Brent's management-speak was truly cringe-worthy, but we now tend to confuse the person delivering the phrase with the phrase itself.

The other problem we've got is when perfectly sensible phrases get over-used to the point where they become meaningless clichés. I can't help but cringe when footballers trot out that tired old phrase 'at the end of the day' for example.

But the English language is a constantly evolving organism and it should be allowed to develop freely. Phrases that don't work will be discarded over time and those that do work will be carried forward into the next stage of our linguistic evolution.

English has been, and always will be, subject to many different influences – Anglo-Saxon, Latin and French are just some of the many factors that have influenced our language. Americanisms now play a huge part in our changing language, but let's not forget that American English is based on British English and that language, like all forms of communication, is a two-way thing.

Shirley Carnegie

Robert Benchley on being a writer

30th January 2014

Don't you just love it when people refuse to take themselves too seriously? The American writer and humourist, Peter Benchley, sums this up perfectly:

"It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous."

Robert Benchley (1989 – 1945)

Stephen King's take on the passive sentence

20th January 2014

"Two pages of the passive voice - just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction - make me want to scream."

Stephen King

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