Why “inconsistent” hyphens really aren’t

This post was brought on by a headline in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, which read:

Scotland from coast-to-coast

I could see this headline in my peripheral vision as I drank my morning coffee, and it started to make me antsy. You see, those hyphens shouldn’t be there.

A coast-to-coast adventure, sure. But not simply coast-to-coast.

This is an issue I deal with all the time, and it’s often difficult to convince non-language-nerds that there’s any rhyme or reason dictating when hyphens are used and when they are not. Often, people flag the sometimes-use of hyphens as “inconsistent.”

But it isn’t. Here’s why: When used as an adjective that precedes a noun, descriptive phrases like “coast-to-coast” are hyphenated. That’s what’s happening in the example “coast-to-coast adventure” I used above. Otherwise, hyphens are a no-no — which is one reason why “Scotland from coast-to-coast” is wrong. (The “from” makes it even *more* wrong, because once hyphenated, coast-to-coast essentially becomes one word, and therefore does not have the necessary “from” and “to” for this phrase to work — it makes about as much linguistic sense as simply saying “Scotland from coast” — but that’s a whole other problem.)

I edit a lot of accounting educational material, in which the ugliest example of this is the lower-of-cost-or-market-value rule, which dictates that companies must disclose the value of their inventory at the lower of cost or market value. When these two uses appear often in one document, it can be difficult to convince non-editors that they hyphens are really there (or not) on purpose. But it’s true!

So feel free to go on a coast-to-coast adventure, but afterward, please write about how wonderful it was to see a country from coast to coast.

And now for something completely different

Today, one of my photos of Spiral Island in Isla Mujeres, Mexico appeared in a feature on Popular Mechanics.com.

The World’s Strangest Man-Made Islands

I’m not exactly a professional photographer, but I enjoy travel photography, especially to complement my travel writing. You can find an article I wrote about Spiral Island here.

I do have a few stock photography images available through ThinkStock.com. You can find them here.

Editing for understandability

I recently went into a Ricky’s restaurant for breakfast. This was the menu description for their Double Egger plate:

Two eggs with shredded hash browns and toast or pancakes

I ordered the Double Egger with pancakes. When it arrived at my table, the plate had just eggs and pancakes, so I asked about my hash browns. The waitress explained to me that if one ordered pancakes, one did not get hash browns.

Do you see the problem? This is not what the menu says. The way the menu description is phrased, the only option is between toast and pancakes. The hash browns are not linguistically tied to the toast in any way.

Later, I checked the online Ricky’s menu to see if the description was any better there. It reads:

2 eggs, with shredded hash browns and toast OR 3 of our famous buttermilk pancakes

So, it seems this pancakes/hashbrowns issue must have come up before, and the comma and that big, capitalized OR are their attempts to make the description more clear. But it’s still not right. That comma after eggs is there to try to indicate that the eggs are the only constant, and that the hashbrowns and toast are a unit. But (a) that comma is wrong, and (b) it still doesn’t quite make the message clear. And putting OR in all caps still doesn’t tie the hash browns and toast together (though this description would probably make me ask to confirm). It would be such a simple fix. All they need to say is:

Two eggs with either toast and hashbrowns or pancakes.

Either! That’s what the word is for — to indicate a choice between two things!

The moral of the story is that what you show to your customers (or potential customers) is only worth printing if it’s easy to understand. I would have been perfectly happy to order toast and hashbrowns, if I’d know it was that or pancakes. Instead, Ricky’s got a cranky customer. A good editor can save you from this kind of mistake — which could turn out to be a lifesaver, especially if the part that’s unclear is worth a lot more than hash browns!

P.S. In the end, after explaining to the manager why the menu was wrong, I got my hash browns. 😉

Raising money for women’s cancers

When I’m not obsessing about grammar and punctuation, I’m passionate about raising money to fight breast cancer. The statistics on this disease are staggering — 1 in 9 women is expected to develop breast cancer in her lifetime. When I look around at my mother, my sisters, my friends, I can only think one thing. We have to do something about it.

I’ve been raising money for breast cancer for five years, and I’ve raised over $7,500 (not counting the money raised so far this year). This year I’m walking in the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers to fight not only breast cancer, but gynecologic cancers as well.

Please join me in my fight. Click on the box below to donate to my fundraising efforts. Thanks so much.


The point is not that I was reading an article about Britney Spears

It’s not my fault. Someone I follow on twitter posted a link to the new, non-airbrushed photos of Britney Spears on the website of UK tabloid the Daily Mail. I had to look.

And while the photos/airbrushing –  and what they reveal about an industry that makes all teenage girls even more full of self-loathing than they would be otherwise – are tough to look at, what’s worse is the writing in the piece.

Exhibit A: The opening sentence

Celebrities and the industry around them is often accused of producing images that affect young people’s body image.

ACK! Celebrities and the industry around them are. ARE! And unless all young people share one body image, images should be plural. Yikes!

Exhibit B: The second sentence (You see where I’m going with this?)

Which is why it’s so refreshing to see one of the world’s most famous pop stars allowing all of their imperfections to be highlighted.

I will forgive the fact that the sentence starts with “which.” This is casual writing, being about celebrities and all, so it’s okay to be a bit chatty. But “their”? We already know the article is about Britney, so the lame excuse of needing a gender-neutral pronoun can’t even be used. Try “her” instead.

Anyway, I can take no more. But the photos are interesting, and if you’re at all intrigued, you can have a peek here.

One comma can really change things

I received an e-mail today with this subject line:

Europe Sale – Up To 25% Off Christina

What this subject line is trying to tell me is that I can get 25% off fares to Europe. But that would look like this:

Europe Sale – Up To 25% Off, Christina

Without the comma, this subject line offers “25% off Christina”… and I don’t recall giving Flight Centre permission to put me on sale.

A freelance travel & lifestyle writer/editor in Vancouver, B.C.