On the Politics of Hyphenation

Published:March 31, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

We defer to The Chicago Manual of Style on most issues involving grammar and punctuation—in other words, stuff we would prefer to spend as little time as possible thinking about. And it’s clear that Chicago has spent whole lifetimes worrying over the existential consequences of, say, a misplaced comma. To paraphrase one of our editors, they put the hyphen in anal-retentive.

They do not, however, put the hyphen in African American, and therein lies a story.

“Whether terms such as African American, Italian American, Chinese American, and the like should be spelled open or hyphenated has been the subject of considerable controversy,” Chicago tells us, “the hyphen being regarded by some as suggestive of bias.” Here Chicago is being coy. “Considerable controversy”? Really? And who are these “some” who have charged the poor hyphen with bigotry? Chicago doesn’t say. Here’s what Chicago does say—and here I picture Moses coming down from the mountain: “Chicago doubts that hyphenation represents bias, but since the hyphen does not aid comprehension in such terms as those mentioned above, it may be omitted unless the writer prefers it.”

Whew. Chicago permits us to hyphenate and absolves us of our sins!

As for why it might be biased in the first place, we turn to The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States by Philip Herbst. “Dropping the hyphen not only leads to a cleaner typographical look,” Herbst advises, “but may also help to cancel the connotation of marginality that comes with hyphenation.”

Which is good enough for us.