Daily Rumination No. 4: Compound Modifiers

The hyphen is a punctuation mark that I think about fairly regularly and today was no exception. Many grammatical freaks fret about the misuse of semicolons and apostrophes—nearly all hope is lost for this mark for both possession and contraction—but the failure to use hyphens properly is perhaps even more worrisome.

Hyphens have a number of uses (including the connection of split words over lines in texts with full justification) and are not to be confused with em and en dashes. The particular usage that I wish to discuss now is for compound modifiers. Such modifiers consist of more than one word, which when combined by a hyphen, act as a joint adjective for a noun that follows. You can read a number of examples in my little picture at the top but here’s another one: ‘hairy-nosed wombat’. Which kind of wombat is it? It’s a hairy-nosed one.

The topic of the hyphen popped into my head whilst I was shopping at Aldi this morning with my wife, Natasha. As I looked around, I noticed multiple examples of missing hyphens, where they should been included to form compound modifiers. I decided to photograph and include some of them in today’s Daily Rumination.

Whilst all the signs that I shot are comprehensible without hyphens, they take on a different literal meaning. The strength of the hyphen is its ability to clarify what is being presented. Check out the examples.

Without hyphens to make ‘free-range’ and ‘cage-free’, this sign is ordering us to free the ‘range eggs’ and cage the ‘free eggs’. I’m not sure what the different is between a ‘range egg’ and a ‘free egg’, although I’m disturbed that we’re liberating one and imprisoning the other. This is pure, meaningless discrimination.

This should say ‘long-life milk’, however we’re either being asked to long for ‘life milk’, which must be the opposite of ‘death milk’, or the milk on display is somehow formulated to help us to live longer lives.

In this case, without writing ‘Award-winning’, someone or something called ‘Award’ has been winning all the frozen goods and Aussie classics at Aldi.

Here, we see books that should be labelled as ‘Learn-to-Play-Music Books’. Why? It’s because that is the type of book. Instead, we are instructed that we should be learning how to play a ‘music book’. I assume that it’s a type of instrument but rustling pages is hardly going to fill a concert venue and reach the nosebleed section.

Last but not least, this should say ‘Light-up’ but it doesn’t. It’s either telling us to set fire to the keyboard or the keyboard is encouraged to smoke a cigarette.

I think that it’s time for me to drop this topic; you get the point. The next time that you go shopping or out for a walk, rather than just looking for misplaced apostrophes, think about the poor hyphen too. It needs our help.

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