Thursday, February 2, 2012

One Hand-Clapping

One day, Buddha was asked ten questions by some monks. He refused to answer these ten questions, and, consequently, they have become known as the unanswerable questions. Buddha claimed that knowing the answers to such questions only hinders our advancement toward liberation. (Good one, Buddha. That’s also how I respond to my students’ questions when I don’t know the answers.)

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.


Terra Shield said...

Thanks for the info. I shall hyphenate with more care after this.

Shelly said...

Ah, great wisdom in your post. Great enlightenment comes with proper hyphen usage.

Jaya J said...

Yeah. Makes a lot of sense :)

Mark said...

The sound of one hand clapping is definitely different from the sound of one hand-clapping. "One hand-clapping" sounds like it means one person clapping with their hands. Very different from someone attempting to clap with one hand. I've seen similar displays involving the Oxford comma lately too.

Shannon said...

Yikes. I only use hyphens when enunciating a point.


That's correct grammar, right? ;)

Rachael said...

I work as a professional editor and proper hyphenation is one of my pet peeves. Sometimes my coworkers argue against hyphenating an entire adjectival phrase if it's longer than two words "because it looks funny." (For example, a "New-Jersey-registered" electrician or whatever.) Drives me crazy, because it doesn't matter if it looks funny if it helps the reader understand!

the late phoenix said...

where's karen? i want to meet her

BUDDHA - BELLY <------the more i ponder...

...the more i ponder upon that, i enter a deep sleep...of meditation...or really more of sleep

*12 hours of rest later* : i now know the mystery of the one-hand clapping thing, it exists, i heard it, but wait, it still exists if i don't hear it, right? i remember being in a forest when i heard the sound, or was i in the trees? was it all just a dream? then again, maybe this waking life is the dream. i'll consult my pet butterfly, for after all, his wings flapping are what started the Universe to begin with...

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Ha! Very entertaining lesson, MISSED PERIODS.

>>...I texted him, left him three voicemails and tweeted him, and he never got back to me

Hmmm... I'm thinking I would have hyphenated "voice-mail". (Well, I hate the term "voicemail" anyway. It's really just a plain ol' damned "phone message" in my book.)

>>...Until then, what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Oh, heck, that's easy! It's the exact same sound that a tree falling in the forest makes when there's no one around to hear it. (I learned that in my Metaphysics 101 class. I failed the class, but I did get that question correct on my final exam.)

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Janet Johnson said...

This is exactly what I was taught. But yours is so much more entertaining!

One-handed clapping is not clapping in my humble opinion.

Deniz Bevan said...

I love those hyphens.

If I can add one more question to the list... saw this on the back of a sympathy card, in the artist's biography:

"His reputation means that his paintings are in demand worldwide"

I know this sentence is wrong - it's essentially circular - but I just can't quite explain why. Why is it wrong??

Amie Kaufman said...

You're awesome! I can't believe you got me giggling over a tutorial on how to use hyphens... and taught me something. Bravo.

Crystal Pistol said...

You are a hyphen-genius. :) I have come away with new knowledge in my noggin. Thank you.

Jo-Ann said...

Great post, Missed, I appreciate it! I sometimes hyphenate a string of words when writing with a YA voice, in order to underscore the point it-happens-so-often-it-should-be-a-recognised-term.

Plus, I pretend to not be annoyed when my name fails to get hyphenated ;)

DWei said...

The sound of one hand clapping is a slap across the face. :P

cestlavie22 said...

This actually was a very informative post for me. I have always had an issue with punctuation and this is a good thing to know! I would definitely say there is a difference between "one hand-clapping" and " one hand clapping". The first would suggest one person clapping their hands while the other would suggest one hand clapping- against what I dont know lol!

Mykuljay said...

YES! The PROF' answers me. Thank you so much. I just love the hyphen for some reason and will continue to abuse it I'm quite sure. You are a kindly-soul searching for the truth of grammar. May my one hand clap quietly for you. :-)

Theresa Milstein said...

Thank you for the hypen advice. I'm often flummoxed about whether or not to use one, and I've been around long enough to know Microsoft Word often lies.

I'm reading your blog instead of my textbook. It's justified because I'm learning something--not about special education--but isn't grammar really the foundation of all knowledge?

Shutterbug said...

what would we do without hyphens?

Dylan Fitzgerald said...

Is the hyphen kind of like the cool cousin of the Oxford comma? They both seem to clarify matters immensely :)

Dylan Fitzgerald said...

P.S. I thought I would take this opportunity to let you know there is a "Commonly Confused Words Test" that you can take on OKCupid. I maintain you did it first.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

FYI: You are expected to answer the question posed to you in the comment section of my most recent blog bit.

It pertains to "The O.C."

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Mykuljay said...

I forgot to mention Prof - I also like to use the hyphen as sort of a pause and at times for dramatic effect. "She looked at him with a small smile and when only inches from his face, replied with only one word - yes."

Wendy Ramer said...

Don't know if you remember me (I haven't been around the blogosphere for a whiiiile), but your posts always crack me up. More importantly, I am an ESL professor and have my own blog page for my students ( I use my posts as discussion assignments, and I'd like to know if I could have your permission to link some of your posts to my own page as they pertain to my students' needs. Students would be directed to your actual blog but comment on our Blackboard application for the classroom.

I await your reply :-)

JEOaks said...


...and you did it all with ONE HAND!