Don’t syphon your hyphens

coin-op showers
Q.
What’s the proper use of hyphens?

A. Hyphens diminish the space between words. They bring words closer rather than separating them. Here is a guide to the most common uses of hyphens.

Whether you are a native speaker of English or a speaker of English as a second language (ESL), these tips can be helpful.

compound words  Use hyphens to separate parts of compound words. Use the dictionary to learn whether to use one word, two words or one hyphenated word. Water-repellent, but waterproof; cross-examine, but notebook.

multiple-word adjectives  Use hyphens to connect two or more words functioning together as an adjective before a noun.

  • Buy some paper-wrapped fish at the market.
  • We charge for in-house consulting and for EPA-mandated documents.
  • Sears’ 120-piece tool-set.
  • Profit-sharing plans (profit modifies sharing, not plans).
  • Levi’s red-tab jeans, on sale for $90.00.

avoiding ambiguity  Use hyphens when uncertainty would arise without them.

  • She will speak to small-business men (not short males).
  • Forty-odd employees would be silly without the hyphen.
  • The agency provides domestic-violence training (training in domestic violence, not an at-home training session on violence).
  • A genuine-leather catcher’s mitt (a mitt made of genuine leather, not a mitt for a leather-catcher).
  • Hyphenate to distinguish re-creation from recreation.
  • Hyphenate to differentiate under-served from undeserved.
  • Hyphenate to separate awkward double or triple letters, such as anti-intellectual and cross-stitch.

multiple words as one   Use hyphens with words that you want to glue together into a single unit. The hyphen brings single words together so they work as a team.

  • Slab-on-grade.
  • A less-is-more philosophy.
  • The Eagles-Redskins game.
  • The Willard-Laney-Johnson-Elliott family reunion.
  • The Atlanta-Philadelphia flight.
  • When my son sat on my lap during his first Phillies game, it was a take-me-out-to-the-ballgame feeling.

suspended hyphens  In a series of similar entries, when each entry requires a hyphen, write the hyphens and skip (or suspend) the common word.

  • You may buy first-, second- or third-class tickets.
  • The agency provides before- and after-school care.
  • We offer both short- and long-term leases.

fractions  Use hyphens for fractions. One-fourth of my income goes to pay off the national debt (the hyphen brings words closer).

incorrect hyphens   Do not use hyphens when the same words follow the noun.

  • We do in-house consulting.
  • We do the consulting in house.
  • We did a last-minute edit of the nonfiction manuscript.
  • We edited the nonfiction manuscript at the last minute.

more incorrect hyphens  Do not use hyphens to connect -ly adverbs to the words they modify.

  • A slowly (no hyphen) moving truck.
  • A partially (no hyphen) edited manuscript.
  • An especially sympathetic writing coach.

Quiz: How many hyphens would you insert in this paragraph?

The 12 story, glass and limestone tower improves the look of the entire neighborhood. The new condominium development on Bank Street features homes with state of the art appliances and the latest in furnishings. Buyers looking for beautifully appointed two and three bedroom contemporary homes with open floor plans should visit this high-end development. First-quarter sales have been brisk, attesting to the property’s solid investment potential. Buyers and their agents should stop by the sales office on Bank Street or request a copy of the four color brochure.

Answer: My version adds 11 hyphens.

The 12-story, glass-and-limestone tower improves the look of the entire neighborhood. The new condominium development on Bank Street features homes with state-of-the-art appliances and the latest in furnishings. Buyers looking for beautifully appointed two- and three-bedroom contemporary homes with open floor plans should visit this high-end development. First-quarter sales have been brisk, attesting to the property’s solid investment potential. Buyers and their agents should stop by the sales office on Bank Street or request a copy of the four-color brochure.

Can non-native English speakers write nonfiction?

all rules apply

Q. English is not my first language, but I have to write business reports for work. Help!

A. Help is on the way.

I understand that your goal is to be able to write better, more precise e-mails and reports – and to produce them more quickly. Even though English is not your first language – even though you write English as a Second Language (ESL) – you can do this.

If we were meeting in person, we would spend two hours together each week, devoting one and a half hours to writing and a half hour to vocabulary. Whether you are writing to colleagues, co-workers or clients in Camden or Cairo, you will be better prepared to write what you need to write.

As an educated person with an excellent command of English, you know grammar far better than most native speakers. For the writing segment we would begin with the basics:
• A quick review of grammar, including parts of speech, pronouns and prepositions.
• A special focus on active verbs and how they improve all writing.
• A review of punctuation, sentence structure and paragraphs.
• Ways to edit and proofread your early drafts.

Then we would kick it up a notch and discuss:
• Clarifying your thoughts before you write.
• Organizing your document.
• Knowing your audience.
Writing in parallel construction.
Avoiding common mistakes.
• Tightening your copy.
• Formatting (if appropriate).
• Spelling and grammar tools in Microsoft Word.

Along the way, if you get stuck in the middle of a document, you can call or e-mail me. If I’m at my desk, I can often answer immediately.

For the vocabulary lessons, we will talk during each session about a business-related topic, such as human resources, domestic business and international business, the areas in which you specialize. I will create short lists of words that you can master in a week.

P.S. Until we begin….

Buy an inexpensive crossword book, at a dollar store or a chain pharmacy. Start doing the puzzles, looking up answers whenever you want. Keep lists of the words you need to master.

Who reads what I write?

This is my target reader.
Write a profile of your readers in order to target your blog.

Q. I write a blog. I have a vague idea of who my readers are and what they want to read, but how do I know what to write for them?

A. Interesting question. Let’s talk.

You are targeting young adults, just out of college. You want to advise them about financial planning, primarily how to live on their actual income rather than charging everything and never catching up with credit-card debt. So I suggest you write a description of a typical reader. Or readers.

You want to speak to 24-year-old men. Imagine one such man and write a profile of him. Mention:
• What he earns annually.
• What other assets he has.
• What debts he has, including student loans.
• Where he lives and what he spends on his dwelling.
• What he eats and what he spends on food.
• What he spends on recreation, socializing, clothing, healthcare, etc.
• Whatever else you think is relevant.
Choose a picture from the web to represent your token reader. Turn this into a minor art project on a single sheet of paper so you can see him every time you begin to write.

If you have another targeted reader, perhaps a 25-year-old woman, write her up, too, and add a photo.

Since this is your business, and you already have the expertise to write this blog and website, these profiles might be enough to get you started. If not, ask people you know who fit your criteria and ask them what they want to learn about financial health. Are they already saving for college for their unimagined children, or for a trip around the world in 10 years, or for retirement?

If you want to promote your hair salon, that’s not the profile to write. You want to differentiate between people who spend freely and those who don’t, people who want a neck massage after a cut and blow-dry and those who don’t, and so on. Ask your suppliers of hair products, who probably have a vastly larger marketing budget that you, what they know about your intended clients. And ask your clients what interests them, hair-wise. Then tailor the copy on your website or blog accordingly.

If you can picture your target, you can more easily write what s/he wants to read about your topic.

To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.

Learn to write nonfiction — and that’s the truth

almost everything we say is true

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