AP sparks linguistic pandemonium with hyphen guidance update

The sky has fallen! The end is nigh! How can we possibly go on?

That is the reaction to a small change in Associated Press style that has unsettled many editors and writers.

The change? AP is calling for no hyphen between some compound modifiers, like “first quarter touchdown.”

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The panic was set off by an AP tweet:

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And the outrage was immediate:

“AP Stylebook Changes Hyphen Guidance, Ushering In Total Chaos,” read a headline on a blog post by Kyle Koster on thebiglead.com, a sports site. This “Earth-shattering news bomb” is bound to unleash “chaos” in newsrooms, “as the definition put in place is certainly open to interpretation,” the writer hyperventilated. (Was there tongue in cheek? Hard to say.) On a listserv for a group of editors and writers, a thread, “I stand with the hyphen,” dominated the conversation for days, mostly decrying the “change.”

Please, everyone. Take a deep breath as we explain the “change.”

To begin with, the “rule” is not new. As the lead stylebook editor, Paula Froke, noted in an email, AP has been moving in this direction for years. AP has always been hyphen-averse, preferring that a writer clarify the sentence for someone who does not understand the hyphen “rules.” The modification of the “rules” on hyphens, as Froke told the editors, came about because many people asked whether those hyphens were needed. They often were, under the old “rules,” she said, but it was time to be more precise and consistent.

While “first-quarter touchdown” was included in the 2018 stylebook, the overall advice on compound modifiers has not changed, but was enhanced:

When a compound modifier — two or more words that express a single concept — precedes a noun, you must decide: Hyphenate that modifier, or not? Often there’s not one absolute answer.

But in general: No hyphen is needed if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, early morning traffic, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, first quarter touchdown, real estate transaction.

Note the qualifiers: “Often there’s not one absolute answer,” “you must decide,” “in general.” There is freedom to choose. It’s not a “rule,” it’s a “guideline.”

The “change” being bemoaned was even announced by Froke at the March conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. Some murmuring was heard, but no one rended (or rent) garments and few teeth were gnashed that we saw. Five months later, the writing world seems to have exploded over the hyphen. (Was the start of football season the proximate cause of the dreaded tweet?)

Hyphens, as AP says, are joiners, allowing a reader to see that two words share a close connection, as when two words together modify a noun. Often, those two words together modify the same noun, making a compound modifier.

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Whether a hyphen is needed in those compound modifiers is often a matter of preference or style. Should “health care center” be “health-care center”? Sometimes, language takes care of that decision by merging the hyphenated word into one, which is where “health care” is headed. (“Healthcare” is accepted by some dictionaries, though not yet by AP.)

Sometimes, a hyphen or lack of one is needed for clarity. A watch made of 18 karat gold is a “yellow gold watch,” where “yellow” is tied to the “gold,” not the watch; a plastic watch the color of goldenrod is a “yellow-gold watch,” because it’s a color combination somewhere between “yellow” and “gold.” AP, like many other style manuals, wants the clarity of “a well-known speaker” as a hyphenated compound modifier before the noun, but also wants “as a speaker, she is well known,” without the hyphen, when it comes after the noun.

Sometimes, as in “first quarter touchdown” or “first quarter earnings” or “real estate transaction,” the expressions have become so common by themselves that the hyphen is not essential. Have you ever been misled by a “chocolate chip cookie” with no hyphen? It’s just as yummy.

This is not a “rule,” like the one that says you must stop at a red light. It’s more like the right-turn-on-red scenario, where you are allowed to turn right on red under certain conditions: It’s permissible by law, no cars or pedestrians are approaching, and all other signs indicate it is safe to turn. You do not have to drop the hyphen in “first quarter touchdown” if you do not want to, unless your publication is a strict adherent to AP style. You are allowed to drop it if there is no ambiguity without it, especially if your publication is a strict adherent to AP style.

Habits are hard to break. As Froke said at ACES, “Often, the angst over style changes is rooted in having to do something a different way.”

She added: “I’ve been doing it that way for 35 years, and it’s hard to change. But I will.”

So can you.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.