B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E  


If you don't know how you got here, go here.

Below is a transcript showing e-mails between me and a crossword enthusiast in which I discuss whether phrases such as naturally-lit room and correctly-spelled prose contain the incorrect number of hyphens.

Of all the many e-versations I've had with crossword fans, this is the only one I can recall in which my correspondent was inexplicably rude (and wrong to boot).

----- September 17, 2002

On September 13, 2002, in CRU-L you said, "...and they [some newspapers] don't know how to compose clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled prose."

I thought you'd be ironized by the fact there should be no hyphen in "correctly-spelled."


----- Later on September 17, 2002

I don't know where you got that idea from, but I suggest you check any number of good grammar books before responding again.

-- Dan

----- September 19, 2002


I'm surprised by your instantly hostile and haughty attitude.  I meant to be light and whimsical, perhaps to initiate a friendly dialogue for a moment.

Would your response have been different if you'd known you are not 100% correct about that hyphen?

You typed this: ". . . and they don't know how to compose clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled prose."  I said the hyphen shouldn't be there.

In answer to your implied question, here's where I got that idea from.

(1) From *The Random House Handbook* by Frederick Crews, page 374, here are the three examples given of error-free, properly hyphenated terms: "a barely suppressed gasp," "an openly polygamous chieftan," "the hypothetically worded note of protest."  Note, Dan, no hyphens.

(2) From *Plain English Handbook* by J. Martyn Walsh and Anna Kathleen Walsh, page 82, here's their particularly apt example of whether to use a hyphen: "a beautifully illustrated story."  See that? No hyphen.

(3) From *William Safire On Language,* page 137, here are his examples of correctly hyphenated phrases: "newly elected officials" and "freshly painted faces."  Again, no hyphens.

(4) From *Words on Words* by John Bremner, page 194, here is his unequivocally straightforward proscription: "Don't hyphenate an -ly adverb and an adjective: 'highly proficient,' not 'highly-proficient.'  This principle applies whether the words come before a noun or after a verb: 'A highly proficient electrician is needed for this job' and 'An electrician who is highly proficient is need for this job.'"  Plain enough?

(5) From *Modern American Usage* by Wilson Follett, page 428, here is the bluntly stated advice with regard to the hyphen: "Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted.  It is not wanted between an adverb and its adjective before a noun: a serenely unconscious man / a verbally inept proposal / a remarkably pretty girl."  Note, Dan, the complete and total absence of hyphens.

(6) From a number of Web sites purporting to answer expertly the question whether a phrase of the form "correctly-spelled prose" is correct.  Every single one I found that addresses the question agrees "correctly-spelled prose" is incorrectly hyphenated.

(7) And mostly from my own knowledge of what's correct after so many years of being a writor and an editer.

To be honest, it never occurred to me you would actually disagree with me.  I assumed you would chuckle at the irony of mis-punctuating the phrase "correctly spelled prose" and that would pretty much be it, unless our common interests in crosswords and language and science sparked a conversation.

You say, "I suggest you check any number of good grammar books before responding again."

I take that to mean you have in mind a specific list of good grammar books that support your position so overwhelmingly that all the sources I listed above are almost criminally wrong.  I would like to see you cite even one.  That won't win the argument, but the fact is I really could not find a single source of information on the subject that sanctions a hyphen in "correctly spelled prose."

Now, to be sure, there can be exceptions.  If a particular phrase has become a term of art -- "nonuply-capped nematode," for example -- then perhaps it serves the purpose of consistently clear scientific communication to continue to use that non-standard form, particularly if the native language of a significant part of the readership is not, in this case, English.  But I would also suggest that whoever coined the phrase should have gotten it right to begin with.

In any case, "correctly-spelled prose" is hardly a term of art; it's a simple phrase like "error-free, properly hyphenated terms" or "particularly apt example" or "unequivocally straightforward proscription" or "bluntly stated advice."

Or logical, factually unassailable rebuttal.

I know you care about crisp, fastidiously correct English as much as I do, so I'm particularly interested in your response.  Unless it is purely hostile and unjustifiably haughty and imperious again.

No matter what, though, Dan, if it turns out I'm wrong about that hyphen I'll apologize and thank you for teaching me something.



[Later on September 19, 2002]

Please do not contact me again.


[September 20, 2002]

You are a coward for not admitting you were wrong.

You are an ingrate for not thanking me for improving your English.

And you are graceless for not apologizing to me for your abominable behavior, especially since you were dead wrong from the start.

NOW I will stop contacting you.


[Dan, if I'm not mistaken, you actually went so far as to block mail from me, and as a result you never received this e-mail, mine of September 20, 2002.]

[January 18, 2003]


I still stand by what I said last to you, on September 20, 2002 (even if you didn't receive it), and I invite your response.

Having said all that, below I repeat what you wrote me yesterday, January 17, 2003.



I like your comments about language. I'm mostly a prescriptivist myself, and 
am disappointed that virtually all modern dictionaries have abdicated their 
prescriptivist role and become descriptivist. 

I do not, however, believe that there is any justification for rejecting the "will possibly" meaning of the word "may".  I feel it is well established and entirely valid.

On the other hand, I do believe that "can" should be restricted to expressing 
whether one is able to do something, as opposed to whether one has permission 
(may) to do something. 

Both "may" and "could" have a somewhat bewildering array of similar but not 
quite identical meanings. Although this is somewhat unfortunate, it's just 
the way things are, as I see it. 

Sincerely, Daniel 


To continue, Daniel, I'd be happy to respond to your comments about my comments about language. As I had hoped to convey earlier, I welcome such intelligent exchanges.

But I can't figure out whether you recall who I am. I am the person to whom you said, "I don't know where you got that idea from, but I suggest you check any number of good grammar books before responding again," and later, "Please do not contact me again."

Who are you, and why did you really write?

[Later on 01/18/03, Dan, I received the following message, which is essentially identical to the one I received in response to my 09/20/02 mail, from your mail server, AOL. If I read this right, you have used AOL's mail utility to block mail from me.]

The original message was received at Sat, 18 Jan 2003 14:46:50 -0500 (EST) from mail8.kc.rr.com []

*** ATTENTION *** [snipped here]

--AOL Postmaster

----- Permanent fatal errors.  Transcript of session follows -----
... while talking to air-xk01.mail.aol.com.:
>>> RCPT To:
550 Dan... User unknown



I am now writing you from one of my AOL screen names, AlterWego, going on the assumption that you both intended to write me on January 17th of this year and that you blocked mail from my usual e-mail addy and forgot having done so.

Again, I await your response.



Subj: Re: Language
Date: 1/20/03 1:34:01 PM Central Standard
From: Dan
To: johnnyg (AlterWego)

You are absolutely right, I had no idea the person I recently wrote to was the same person I had written to before.

But as I said, please do not contact me again. Via any medium, via any name.


Update of September 2010: Eight years after we last communicated, out of the blue, my correspondent wrote to say he is now embarrassed at what he wrote and apologized and admitted he was wrong.


B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E