A friend of mine recently passed judgment on (what turned out to be a correct) usage of a comma in a Facebook post by saying, “That’s a really bad use of a comma.” I found myself cringing at his use of the word “bad”. ‘You mean a poor use of a comma,’ I thought to myself but did not say. Then I stopped to wonder why I had had such a gut response. Review of the Gregg Reference Manual, AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as a quick Google search for Anglicistic discussions about the usage of “bad” vs. “poor”, and consultation of Webster’s New World Dictionary for the definitions and usage of both words, brought me to accept a consensus that there is no difference between the use of “bad” and “poor”, as they both essentially mean the same thing (“not good”). Just the same, I will continue to go with my gut as to which sounds better in what context.
According to the AP Stylebook: “Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional is most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better … “. The decision whether or not a phrase should be hyphenated has caused many people many headaches.
Here are a few guidelines I trust:
A hyphen should be used to connect words in contexts where not to do so would cause a glitch in the logical decoding of a written communication. The example given in the 2011 AP Stylebook is “small-business owner.” One might argue that the larger context of the writing will lead the reader to the correct interpretation of the phrase, for example, in a trade magazine devoted to business topics one would not expect to be reading about diminutive people who own businesses; however, decoding is meant to be linear, and the import of good writing is self-contained. Notice that the hyphen is made necessary by the presence of two nouns following an adjective, in order to make clear which noun is meant to be modified: “She runs a small business” or “He is a business owner” do not present an issue.
Hyphens are used to create a single concept from multiple words, to create either a noun or an adjective: “That coat is run-of-the-mill.” “The party is come-as-you-are.” “Her husband is a stick-in-the-mud.” Leaving the hyphens out would cause the brain to stumble upon an illogical word order.
The rule of hyphenating a multiple-word phrase which expresses a single modifier applies to adverbs as well, except those which end in -ly, since that suffix of itself denotes modification of the subsequent word: “user-friendly interface” but “environmentally friendly products.”
Some styles accept turning a word phrase which might be hyphenated into a single compound word. For example, I have edited many articles concerning “health care” in the past several years and have come to follow what seems to be a trend, at least according to Googled examples: Instead of talking about health-care plans, health-care costs, etc., one sees “healthcare” used as a single word.
Two terms I struggle with are “high school student” and “middle-school student.” To my eye it simply looks right to hyphenate the latter and not the former, but I have no rational basis for doing so.
As an adult, I have often been told that I look like my mother, although mostly by my mother’s friends and my father’s family, not by my mother’s family, who consider me to favor my father. I am able to identify similarities to both parents in my face, and, since I turned 45, I have been somewhat startled to see my maternal grandmother’s face echoed in my own reflection on a few occasions. Nearly sixteen years ago, John and I beheld our oldest daughter for the first time in a sonogram image taken to confirm my pregnancy at about 10 weeks. Even in the womb, the barely formed face was to me reminiscent of my husband’s mother (“Yikes, she already looks like my mother-in-law!”). When K was born, I looked into her beautiful, wrinkled little-old-man face and thought of my mother’s father, beloved Grampa, who had left this earth seven years before. My maternal grandmother, Gramma, with the help of my Aunt Jean, made the effort to call me at the hospital to congratulate me on the birth, and I was pleased to tell her that K would be named for her. A couple of weeks later I was able to introduce K to her namesake, among other members of the family. I pointed out how K’s dark brows reminded me of Grampa; my mother thought K looked like my husband, others said she had my eyes, my mother’s mouth, etc. Gramma heard all of this, studied the baby for a moment, and pronounced, “She has her own face.” Lately, that memory has been resonating for me, as I look at my own face in the mirror. Instead of seeing my mother’s mouth, my father’s eyes, his father’s nose, and even the bone structure of Grampa’s mother, all jumbled together, I am now beginning to recognize that it is, indeed, finally, my own face.