Reference > H.W. Fowler > The King’s English, 2nd ed.

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter IV. Punctuation


WE return here to our usual practice of disregarding everything not necessary for dealing with common mistakes. But some general principles, most of which will probably find acceptance, will be useful to start from.

  1. Hyphens are regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may.

  2. There are three degrees of intimacy between words, of which the first and loosest is expressed by their mere juxtaposition as separate words, the second by their being hyphened, and the third or closest by their being written continuously as one word. Thus, hand workers, hand-workers, handworkers.

  3. It is good English usage to place a noun or other non-adjectival part of speech before a noun, printing it as a separate word, and to regard it as serving the purpose of an adjective in virtue of its position; for instance, war expenditure; but there are sometimes special objections to its being done. Thus, words in -ing may be actual adjectives (participles), or nouns (gerunds), used in virtue of their position as adjectives; and a visible distinction is needed. A walking stick is a stick that walks, and the phrase might occur as a metaphorical description of a stiffly behaved person: a walking-stick or walkingstick is a stick for walking; the difference may sometimes be important, and consistency may be held to require that all compounds with gerunds should be hyphened or made into single words.

  4. Not only can a single word in ordinary circumstances be thus treated as an adjective, but the same is true of a phrase; the words of the phrase, however, must then be hyphened, or ambiguity may result. Thus: Covent Garden; Covent-Garden Market; Covent-Garden-Market salesmen.

The prevailing method of giving railway and street names, besides its ungainliness, is often misleading and contrary to common sense. For one difficulty we suggest recurrence to the old-fashioned formula with commas, and and, as in The London, Chatham, and Dover. On another, it is to be observed that New York-street should mean the new part of York Street, but New-York Street the street named after New York. The set of examples includes some analogous cases, besides the railway and street names.

It is stated that the train service on the Hsin-min-tun-Kau-pan-tse-Yingkau section of the Imperial Chinese Railway will be restored within a few days.—Times.

Hsinmintun, Kaupantse, and Yingkau. These places can surely do without their internal hyphens in an English newspaper; and one almost suspects, from the absence of a hyphen between Ying and kau, that the Times's stock must have run short.

Even third-class carriages are scarce on the Dalny-Port Arthur line.—Times.

The Dalny and Port-Arthur line. By general principle 4, though Port Arthur needs no hyphen by itself, it does as soon as it stands for an adjective with line: the Port-Arthur line. Also, by 2, the Times version implies that Dalny is more closely connected with Port than Port with Arthur. We do indeed most of us know at present that there is no Dalny Port so called, and that there is a Port Arthur. But in the next example, who would know that there was a Brest Litovski, but for the sentence that follows?

A general strike has been declared on the Warsaw-Brest Litovski railway. The telegraph stations at Praga, Warsaw, and Brest Litovski have been damaged.—Times.

The Warsaw and Brest-Litovski railway. By 4, the hyphen between Brest and Litovski is necessary. If we write Warsaw-Brest-Litovski, it is natural to suppose that three places are meant; the and solution is accordingly the best.

At Bow-street, Robert Marsh, greengrocer, of Great Western-road, Harrow-road, was charged...—Times.

Great-Western Road, Harrow Road. Bow-street, as at (not in) shows, is a compound epithet for police-court understood, and has a right to its hyphen. By 3, there is no need for a hyphen after Harrow, and by 1, if unnecessary, it is undesirable. As to the other road, there are three possibilities. The Times is right if there is a Western Road of which one section is called Great, and the other Little. If the name means literally the great road that runs west, there should be no hyphen at all. If the road is named from the Great Western Railway, or from the Great-Western Hotel, our version is right.

Cochin China waters.—Times.

By 4, Cochin China gives Cochin-China waters.

Within the last ten days two Anglo-South Americans have been in my office arranging for passages to New Zealand.—Times.

Anglo-South-Americans is the best that can be done. What is really wanted is Anglo-SouthAmericans, to show that South goes more closely with America. But it is too hopelessly contrary to usage at present.

The proceeds of the recent London-New York loan.—Times. (London and New-York loan.)

A good, generous, King Mark-like sort of man.—Times.

King-Mark-like, in default of KingMark-like. But the addition of -like to compound names should be avoided.

The Fugitive Slave-law in America before the rebellion.—H. Sidgwick. (Fugitive-Slave law)

The steam-cars will have 16-horse power engines.—Times.

Steam cars is better, by 3, and 1. And 16-horsepower engines. We can do this time what the capitals of American and Mark prevented in the previous compounds.

Entirely gratuitous hyphens.

One had a male-partner, who hopped his loutish burlesque.—Meredith.

Gluttony is the least-generous of the vices.—Meredith.

A little china-box, bearing the motto 'Though lost to sight, to memory dear,' which Dorcas sent her as a remembrance.—Eliot.

This evidently means a box made of china. A box to hold china would have the hyphen properly, and there are many differentiations of this kind, of which black bird, as opposed to black-bird or blackbird, is the type.

Bertie took up a quantity of waste-papers, and thrust them down into the basket.—E. F. Benson.

This is probably formed by a mistaken step backwards from waste-paper basket, where the hyphen is correct, as explained in 3.

In phrases like wet and dry fly fishing, compounded of wet-fly fishing and dry-fly fishing, methods vary. For instance:

A low door, leading through a moss and ivy-covered wall.—Scott.

A language ... not yet fetlocked by dictionary and grammar mongers.—Lowell.

Those who take human or womankind for their study.—Thackeray.

The single phrases would have the hyphen for different reasons (moss-covered, &c.), all but human kind. The only quite satisfactory plan is the Germans', who would write moss- and ivy-covered. This is imitated in English, as:

In old woods and on fern- and gorse-covered hilltops they do no harm whatever.—Spectator.

Refreshment-, boarding-, and lodging-house keepers have suffered severely too.—Westminster Gazette.

But imitations of foreign methods are not much to be recommended; failing that, Lowell's method seems the best—to use no hyphens, and keep the second compound separate.

Adverbs that practically form compounds with verbs, but stand after, and not necessarily next after them, need not be hyphened unless they would be ambiguous in the particular sentence if they were not hyphened. This may often happen, since most of them are also prepositions; but even then, it is better to rearrange the sentence than to hyphen.

He gratefully hands-over the establishment to his country.—Meredith.

Thoughtful persons, unpledged to shore-up tottering dogmas.—Huxley.

It is a much commoner fault to over-hyphen than to under-hyphen. But in the next example malaria-infected must be written, by 3. And in the next again, one of the differentiations we have spoken of is disregarded; the fifty first means the fifty that come first: the fifty-first is the one after fifty. The ambiguity in the third example is obvious.

The demonstration that a malaria infected mosquito, transported a great distance to a non-malarial country, can...—Times.

'Nothing serious, I hope? How do cars break down?' 'In fifty different ways. Only mine has chosen the fifty first.'—Kipling.

The Cockney knew what the Lord of Session knew not, that the British public is gentility crazy.—Borrow.

There comes a time when compound words that have long had a hyphen should drop it; this is when they have become quite familiar. It seems absurd to keep any longer the division in to-day and to-morrow; there are no words in the language that are more definitely single and not double words; so much so that the ordinary man can give no explanation of the to. On the other hand, the word italicized in the next example may well puzzle a good many readers without its hyphen; it has quite lately come into use in this country ('Chiefly U. S.' says the Oxford Dictionary, which prints the hyphen, whereas Webster does not), and is in danger of being taken at first sight for a foreign word and pronounced in strange ways.

The soldiers ... have been building dugouts throughout April.—Times.

There is a tendency to write certain familiar combinations irrationally, which may be mentioned here, though it does not necessarily involve the hyphen. With in no wise and at any rate, the only rational possibilities are to treat them like nevertheless as one word, or like none the less as three words (the right way, by usage), or give them two hyphens. Nowise and anyrate are not nouns that can be governed by in and at.

Don McTaggart was the only man on his estate whom Sir Tempest could in nowise make afraid.—Crockett.

French rules of neutrality are in nowise infringed by the squadron.—Times.

At anyrate.—Corelli, passim.


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