Changing the way we write - one hyphen at a time
| We passed a sign along the road on the way home today - SMALL ENGINE REPAIRS. It made me think of one of the drawbacks of the English language. The situation occurs when there is an adjective, followed by an adjective/noun, followed by a noun. Got that?
For example, small engine repairs. Does that mean this guy repairs small engines or that he only does small repairs of engines? Is it the size of the engine or the size of the repairs? Can we assume that since the word engine follows the adjective, that is what is being enhanced or adjusted?
Here's another one: Big hotdog eater. Tell me, does the guy only eat big hotdogs, like the foot-long ones? Or is he a big eater of hotdogs? (Or is he just a big guy who eats hotdogs? But that's another issue. Eat enough hotdogs and anyone will be big.). Anyway, if we followed the logic we suggested for the prior phase, we would assume this guy goes for big hotdogs.
Look at this sentence - "My wife and I are spicy food lovers and there is a small Italian restaurant nearby." What do you think? Are my wife and I really spicy and just how diminutive is that Italian?
You see the problem, right? It's not a case of a misplaced modifier. These are legitimate terms and sentences with proper grammar. They are just potentially confusing. At least they are to me, but then I get confused easily. You may not have a problem with this issue, but I have trouble sleeping at night while I ponder this predicament. You may worry about Global Warming, or maybe it's World Peace that keeps you awake at night. Or maybe just the next-door neighbors. For me, it's confusing grammar.
We usually don't have a problem when someone is speaking. The inflection of the voice typically indicates the true meaning. Or we just assume what seems logical to us. But the written word may cause more confusion.
I saw a headline the other day: Huge Child Car Seat Recall. The image is my mind was of this huge child (too many hotdogs?). Then I thought of this child in a huge car seat. (Okay, so I don't think like everyone else.)
I do have a resolution to this serious problem. It's called the hyphen. I happen to find the hyphen quite handy. (How's that for alliteration from an old English major?). A properly placed hyphen clears up any misunderstandings. It bonds the appropriate words together. To wit: small-engine repairs and big hotdog-eater. And next-door neighbors. Spicy-food lovers and a small Italian-restaurant. See? No confusion. Huge Child-Car-Seat Recall. Even I can get that one.
And no, I am not an Old-English Major; I am an old English-major. And I am trying to improve the way English is written. One hyphen at a time.