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Proofs of life

It’s too hot to run around in the grass, and the dog is curled on the couch, looking for all the world like a contented comma. And I am working through the page proofs of Combat Camera, which arrived yesterday in a nice, fat package.

The burning question in your mind, gentle reader, must be just how much spittle I have wiped from my monitor in defence of the lowly comma. As it happens, there are 4,518 commas in the manuscript. Two have been added (one of these being my own innovation), three removed, and one turned into a semicolon, which gives us (for the engineers in the audience) a Comma Modification Rate of 0.13 percent. This much strain, the airframe can handle.

Working through the proofs does raise interesting questions of usage, particularly around that old bugbear (bug-bear, bug bear) of hyphenation and compounds. For example, is it “jack off,” or “jack-off?”

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary is no help here. (Is of no help here?) In my book it’s “jack-off” as a noun or adjective (“some little jack-off town in the middle of nowhere”), but “jack off” as a verb. The proof of this comes when you, um, conjugate the verb:

I jack off.

You jack off.

He jacks off.

This clearly doesn’t work if you hyphenate it.

Let me digress to clarify that, when I set out to become a writer, I never envisioned that I would one day discuss this particular point.

To a certain degree hyphenation is just a matter of spelling, and I think spelling is the least important thing for a writer to worry about. And sometimes, messing up the forms is just a matter of sloppiness.

But at other times, it’s a highly personal question of style. I’m finicky enough about punctuation at times to perceive a difference between “fresh water” and “freshwater,” and perhaps even “fresh-water.” These forms sound different; a space is a pause. (Similarly, that semicolon sounds different from a period.)

I recall having that debate with a technical editor, when I was working as a technical writer. I’m not sure how it arose, given that our jobs had nothing to do with water, but I became incensed at his suggestion that the latest AP stylebook (not “style book,” dammit*) gave “freshwater” for both adjective and noun, so it would henceforth be “freshwater.”

“AP is just a bunch of newspaper buffoons who know nothing about water,” I said. “Trout may be freshwater fish, but they live in fresh water.”

“As one word,” said he.

“The only trout that live in ‘freshwater,'” said I, “are those that speak English as a second language.”

This discussion continued for some five minutes, until we were both fired—some policy about workplace violence, or something like that.

Point being, as I insisted to the security guard in the parking lot, this is a highly personal question of how you think the language works. Hyphenation and the coining of compounds reflects your ear, and also how you think the language is developing. “Cell phone” became “cellphone” very rapidly, and “e-mail” has become “email,” but “tow truck” remains good old, mundane “tow truck.”

I know not why.


* “dammit” sounds different from “damn it”; the latter is much more formal. But “dammed” is never a substitute for “damned,” except when discussing the state of the (Ontario) Thames River.

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