Stephen Wilbers: Sometimes, the hyphen dashes in to save the day

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 2, 2009 - 1:07 PM

Here's a twist on the old my-dog-ate-my-assignment excuse. Michelle writes:

"This request may stretch credulity, but here goes. I frequently share your columns with my children. Today, my son cut out your column on proofreading and was planning to share it with his fifth-grade teacher. Our dog ate it when it was left on the kitchen table. No, he is not very picky about what he ingests and no, he is not a puppy. ... Would it be possible to get it posted on your website?"

I'm flattered that both you and your son, as well as your dog, enjoy my column, though I differ with you about your dog's not being picky. He obviously has exquisite taste.

So just to keep the three of you on you're tows, find the four proof reading errrors in this sentence.

Patty asks, "Which is correct, 'one out of four students drop out of school,' or 'one out of four students drops out of school'? I vote for drops, but the media seem to favor drop."

You're correct, Patty. The verb in your example should agree with the singular subject one rather than the plural object of the preposition students, so it should be "one ... drops," not "one ... drop."

Subject-verb nonagreement is a common error, often because people make the verb agree with the nearest word rather than with the true subject. For example, it should be "The network of computers is functioning well," not "The network of computers are functioning well."

Alan takes issue with my referring to the hyphen as "a useful, but boring" punctuation mark, in contrast with the dashing dash or the lovely semicolon:

"May I remind you that without hyphens America itself would be boring; there would be no African-Americans, Asian-Americans or, in my case, Hungarian-Croatian-German-Russian Americans. Politics would be boring without left-wing crazies and right-wing lunatics. Entertainment would be boring without late-night talk shows and comedy-dramas. Without hyphens there would be no compound words to grace our language, no written numbers, no hail-fellows-well-met....

"Hyphens boring? Nay, good sir; rather, I submit that hyphens are muscular, dynamic and, dare I say it, puissant. They are gallant companions worthy of standing beside your elegant semicolons.

"I urge you sir: repent. Acknowledge that inner beauty dwells even within the simple, utilitarian hyphen."

I do repent. In "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," Lynn Truss notes: "There will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: If it's not extra-marital sex (with a hyphen), it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts."

Coconuts aside, the four proofreading errors in the sentence above are you're for your, tows for toes, proof reading for proofreading and errrors for errors.

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