The monks’ questions were fancy metaphysical ones like whether or not the world is eternal, whether or not the soul is identical with the body, whether or not a perfectly enlightened being exists after death, and whether or not a hyphen is required in between Buddha and belly.
Okay, fine, the monks didn’t ask Buddha about the hyphen, but they might as well have; the hyphen is as elusive as the mysteries of the universe.
I attempted to reach Buddha in hopes that he might answer the following question: Is there a rule that explains when to express words as two words, one compound word, or a hyphenated word?
I texted him, left him three voicemails and tweeted him, and he never got back to me—so I consulted some grammar gurus instead.
“To understand the hyphen,” the grammar gurus said, “one must first contemplate the sound of one hand clapping.”
In other words, nobody really knows. The consensus is this: when in doubt about whether or not two words should be hyphenated, consult the dictionary.
As you can imagine, that response did not quench my thirst for the knowledge I was seeking.
So I delved deeper into the grammatical sea of knowledge, and I found an explanation that was a bit more satisfying. I found it in the good old Texas Law Review Manual of Style. It advised that we should join two words with a hyphen “if doing so will significantly aid the reader in recognizing the compound adjective.”
So, basically, we should add a hyphen if it’s needed to clarify our meaning.
For example, if I want to express to my reader that my friend Karen loves porn, I would write the following:
Karen is a dirty-movie enthusiast.
Without the hyphen, the reader might think that Karen loves movies but hates showers:
Karen is a dirty movie enthusiast.
If I want to express that Don Juan is a prominent lover, I would use the hyphen:
Don Juan is a big-time lover.
Without the hyphen, it would appear that he is a large person who loves time:
Don Juan is a big time lover.
We have only scratched the surface of the hyphen’s infinite mysteries. More will be revealed in next week’s post.
Until then, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Is it different from the sound of one hand-clapping?
“Compound Words: When To Hyphenate.” Get It Write. 27 April 2003. Web. 1 February 2012.
“The Ten Unanswered Questions.” Web. 1 February 2012. http://www.mi-lam.org/pdf/TenQuestions.pdf.