Monday, April 6, 2009

Very small picture comment

Well, Theresa's doing all that great big-picture thinking again, and here I am, worrying about hyphens. :)

But boy, this got to me, especially since it came from a publisher:
The End to End eBook Solution

I puzzled over that. Made me think of "The war to end wars," and Churchill's "This might be the end of the beginning." But that's not what it means, surely, that this product, whatever it is, is the END of something, that something being, I guess, the "End eBook," or maybe "End eBook Solution". But that's what it's saying. The End. And what is it the end to? End eBook Solution. It's sort of scary, isn't it, that somewhere out there is an "End eBook," the last eBook, maybe? Sounds apocalytic, and adding "solution" only makes it more resonant with finality.

Oh. That's not what it means. That can't be what it means. So what does it mean?

Read over your sentences. Read like a reader would read. Is the reader likely to know what you mean without having to read over and over and discard possible meanings and then, reluctantly, deciding that some meaning is maybe more plausible, given the context and common sense? It's your job to make your meaning clear, not the reader's job to figure out what the hell you're talking about.

Anticipate problems as you write sentences. For example, "end" is especially complicated because it can be a verb or a noun... or an adjective. And "to" similarly can play different roles, as a preposition or as part of a verb-infinitive. So "end to end" meaning from one end to another uses "to" as a preposition (positioning the two ends), while "the war to end wars" uses "to" as the beginning of the infinitive "to end". So, really, you almost couldn't choose a phrase more calculated to confuse.

Fortunately, there's something called a "hyphen" to help.

What goes with what? Don't make the reader guess. This is why hyphens were invented, to indicate when something is a compound, to be read together, usually as a modifier. So probably the compound is "end-to-end"? Like the two cars parked end to end? I'm not sure what it means in this context, and why it's not "beginning to end," but I do know that with hyphens, we know that "end-to-end" is a compound modifier, and while we still don't know if it modifies "eBook" or "solution" or (most likely) "eBook solution," we are at least in the ballpark of meaning and we're not thinking grim thoughts about the end of days and final solutions.

So the rule is:

Compound modifiers before the noun modified are hyphenated. (What's a compound, of course, is up to some debate. Some writers hyphenate "dark blue" before "sea"-- "dark-blue sea," and that's maybe overkill. :) Whether the compound is hyphenated when it's NOT before a noun (like "the solution was end to end/end-to-end") is more a case-by-case (g) determination.

Bring back sentence diagramming, that's what I say. If the person who wrote that advertising tag had spent fourth grade diagramming sentences, well, this travesty would not have happened. And somewhere up in heaven, Sister Evarista is smiling. (I might be presuming too much with that "heaven" thing-- ouch! Okay, okay. Sister Evarista must be in heaven, because that's where the thunderbolts of rebuke are launched.)

Sentence diagramming site (the author apparently had his own Sr. Evarista)



Julie Harrington said...

I had to read that title a few times before I figured out what the title was supposed to be. The End-To-End Ebook Solution makes much more sense, but then I'm a fan of the hypen. :)

Funny thing, thinking about it now, I never once had to diagram a sentence in any of my classes. How weird.


Wes said...

Thank you. The lack of hyphens when they are needed drives me nuts. Somewhat related is when an academic strings four or five nouns together. I want to ask which noun modifies what. I started reading a book recently that would have been of great interest to me. Unfortunately it was some assistant professor's dissertation. The cumbersome style was unnecessary and obscured good information. I finally stopped reading and vowed to check writing more carefully before buying. If I had been on his dissertation committee, it wouldn't have gotten past me. Why would an editor acquire such a book?

Sorry about the rant.

Edittorrent said...

I guess the writer knows what he/she means, and doesn't need the hyphens. Alas, we can't read minds....

Edittorrent said...

No, we can only read words.

That's why a writer needs not just the storyteller's instinct, but also a command of the narrative.


Nixy Valentine said...

It kills me that they don't teach sentence diagramming any more. Actually, since moving to the UK I've discovered they NEVER taught it here.

Teachers look at me like I have lobsters coming out of my ears when I suggest that it's actually a good thing. But then, I'm a visual wordie, so what can I say?

Edittorrent said...

All of my colleagues at a university writing center confess (and I do mean confess, as sentence diagramming is sort of verboten now) that they LOVED doing sentence diagrams.

What's odd, considering its almost taboo status in composition classes, sentence diagramming is something that is taught in linguistics classes.
And yes, a visual wordie! I know what you mean.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be a few days late on this comment, but I couldn't let the double-error go, Alicia.

Quote: If the person who wrong that advertising tag had spent fourth grade diagramming sentences, well, this travesty would not have happened.

Can you spot it? :-) I thought it was magnificent since I often have a brain-jerk and type 'right' for 'write' or vice versa.

[hint: it's the 5th word in the quote]

Edittorrent said...

jan, you're saying my errors are brilliant? :)

Fixed! Thanks!