A plea to grammatically challenged editors – take time out to study what a hyphen can do

Don’t worry, kid…you can always become a journalist when you grow up.


The Grumbles are musing on mounting a campaign to bring back the compound adjective.

It will be aimed at everybody in general but the news media in particular.

Especially it will be aimed at grammatically challenged editors who ultimately are responsible for the quality of their product.

If the tossers grasped the importance of the hyphen and how to use it, their readers’ grasp of what they are reading would be considerably enhanced.

A splendid example of how the absence of the hyphen can cause confusion is thrown up today.

A headline (here) says –

Suspicious fire at quake damaged property

So…what are we being told here, exactly?

That the property was damaged by a suspicious fire?

Or there has been a suspicious fire at a property that had been damaged in an earthquake?

Because either meaning could be taken from this ill-worded slab of sloppy prose, readers have to refer to the story for more information and clarification.

It says –

There has been yet another suspicious fire at an earthquake damaged property in Canterbury.

The buggers still haven’t hyphenated the compound adjective.

But in this context, it is more obvious that the suspicious fire was in a property that had been damaged by an earthquake.

Actually, “damaged” seems to understate things somewhat, because we are told –

Firefighters have been hosing down the embers of the abandoned home in Kaiapoi.

It was already well alight by the time they were called at just before 1am.

Crews from Kaiapoi, Woodend and Rangiora were supported by rural tankers from Pines Beach and Brooklands.

So it seems the headline might usefully have said –

Fire razes earthquake-damaged house

It so happens this is the second suspicious house fire in the area in the past few days.

The area was subject to another string of arson attacks in May.

But that’s by the way.

The purpose of this post is to assert that the modern-day hacks who write this stuff have emerged from journalism school with a sad dearth of understanding of the compound adjective and its role in good communication.

This important grammatical device is described here.

A compound adjective is formed when two or more adjectives work together to modify the same noun. These terms should be hyphenated to avoid confusion or ambiguity.

Two examples of the sort that even a journalist might be able to understand are given –

Incorrect: The black and blue mark suggested that he had been involved in an altercation.

Correct: The black-and-blue mark suggested that he had been involved in an altercation.

Incorrect: Her fifteen minute presentation proved decisive to the outcome of the case.

Correct: Her fifteen-minute presentation proved decisive to the outcome of the case.

Mrs Grumble suggested Alf draw this site to the attention of journalists who wouldn’t know a hyphen from a hymen and what to do with either of them.

Good idea.

This will enable journalists to join other English-grammar learners in taking a simple on-line test.

Alf nevertheless says we should brace for more reports in future where the meaning is unclear because the hacks haven’t harnessed the power of the hyphen to help their readers.

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