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Using Hyphens to Avoid Confusion

If I called you a short story editor, would I be remarking on your height? I would be, if I didn’t hyphenate the phrase “short story editor.” To avoid misunderstanding, I would write “short-story” to make clear what the short is modifying.

The rule for hyphenating compound adjectives (things that describe nouns) is to leave them open unless the meaning might be misconstrued, such as in the example I gave.

Take a look at these:

  • Free market economy (Is the market economy free, or are you talking about “free market” economy?)
  • Secret police force (Is the police force a secret, or are you referring to the secret police?)
  • Post office celebration (Is there a party at your local post office, or is this a party held after the office closes?)

You can see how hyphenating these compounds changes the meaning: free-market economy, secret-police force, and post-office celebration. Continue Reading…

I Would if I Could . . .

Some people might consider the distinction between could and would to be only a matter of degree of politeness (would being more polite than could). But could encompasses additional meanings and connotations.

Could is the past tense of can (to be able to do, make, or accomplish), but it also refers to an ability or possibility in the past.

  • When I was younger, I could run a mile without getting winded.
  • Before cell phones, you could actually engage family members in face-to-face conversation.

Could also implies possibility but in a slightly different sense than can. The statement, “We can hold five adults in our car” shows capacity. There is room for five. Using could instead gives it a slightly different meaning. It’s likely to be true or happen. It’s possible that five people will need a ride.

Could is also used to refer to something that you wish to have or do but that is not possible. (If I could win the lottery, we’d be out of debt!) Could have describes something that was possible but didn’t happen. (We could have won the lottery if we had bought a ticket.) Continue Reading…

Are You Getting the Just Deserts You Deserve?

Sometimes we think bad people should get what they deserve, but we shouldn’t liken that punishment to eating day-old pastries.

Yes, lots of people use the phrase “getting his just deserts,” but they are thinking of desserts—sweet treats.

The word desert pronounced with the accent on the second syllable (de-ZERT), brings to mind the verb that means to leave, abandon, or withdraw. But as a noun, that word means “that which one deserves.” Desert, in that sense, is now archaic and rarely used outside this phrase.

In a convoluted way, writing “he got his just desserts” (as in sweets) makes some sense. I picture doling out some awful-tasting moldy cake to a person I feel deserves such a dessert. Continue Reading…

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