7 August 2005

Go camel!

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

camel2.jpgPeople complain a lot about the misuse of apostrophes, but most of the time it’s a cosmetic problem; you can usually tell what the writer was trying to say, and one apostrophe more or less can demonstrate ignorance or carelessness but doesn’t usually result in ambiguity (those who ask “a tomato’s what for $1?” are really just being perverse). I don’t condone it, but there are other problems more often overlooked.

Take hyphens, for example. English generously allows compound modifiers, which are adjectival or adverbial phrases of more than one word. You can stick them just about anywhere a single adjective or adverb might go. But because there’s more than one word involved, it’s not always obvious which words are modifying what. For example, “man eating fish” could be either a shark or a bloke at Doyle’s. This is where hyphens come in: if we all agree that compound modifiers are internally hyphenated, then the first meaning is always and only expressed by “man-eating fish” and the second by “man eating fish&#8221, and everyone’s happy. But if we don’t stick to the rules, the whole thing breaks down.

Take this headline from the AAP:

Camel racing children to be repatriated.

Now, call me perverse, but I first read this as suggesting that there was a race between a camel and some children to see who would be repatriated first. The camel’s some kind of queue-jumper. It’s kind of a funny image. But in reality it’s quite a sad story about Bangladeshi children trafficked to the Emirates to be camel racers. Now they’ve been replaced by robot jockeys (which luckily is another amusing image) and are heading home. So the headline should of course have been:

Camel-racing children to be repatriated.

Some argue that insisting on the hyphenation of compound modifiers is old-fashioned, and it’s true that sometimes you can get away without them. For example, “very interesting blog entry” contains a compound modifier, but it would look a bit weird to hyphenate it. There’s no issue of misinterpretation, so why bother. But particularly when it’s a noun-verb modifier, you’re often going to run into ambiguities and the hyphen is an elegant solution, as long as everyone sticks to it.

Not all ambiguous headlines can be solved with hyphens. By way of gratuitous example:

Farmer Bill Dies in House

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

British Left Waffles On Falkland Islands

Deer Kill 17,000

But if everyone played by the rules, these would all be sorted out:

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Shot Off Woman’s Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66

Hospitals Sued By 7 Foot Doctors

According to John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, literary Russian is even more fond of compound modifiers than English is. He cites this extract from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Ot fligelej v tylu dvortsa, gde raspolozhilas’ prishedshaja s prokuratorom v Ershalaim pervaja kogorta Dvenedtsatovo Molnienosnovo legiona, zanosilo dymkom v kolonnadu cherez verxnjuju ploshchadku sada.

Which he directly translates as:

From the wing at the rear of the palace, where lodged themselves the having-come-with-the-Procurator-to-Jerusalem first cohort of the Twelfth Lightning legion, drifted smoke towards the colonnade across the upper courtyard to the garden.

Which is obviously great.

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