Use hyphens to punctuate the holidays with laughter

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 30, 2012 - 2:07 PM

The year is 2017. My 4-year-old granddaughter Stephanie (not her real name) looks wide-eyed at our holiday dinner, her face aglow with candlelight, and exclaims, "Let's eat Grammy!"

There are indulgent smiles around the table. Still, rules are rules.

"Unless you want to begin nibbling on her fingers," says my daughter, "you need to use a comma with a form of direct address."

"Sorry Mommy," says Stephanie. "I forget my commas when I'm excited. Let's eat, Grammy!"

"That's better. And?"

"Sorry, Mommy."

"Well done!" I say, passing the cranberries to my wife, who like me takes comfort in knowing that punctuation rules are being passed along to the next generation.

I was just thinking of how I love the holidays, a time for family gatherings and traditions, when my son says, "Let's play 'Hyphen-ate.'"

"What better time than now?!" I say, using the occasion to drop in an interrobang, my favorite non-standard punctuation mark. "You start."

"All-right," says my son. "I recently-read in the oft quoted New-York-Times that 'open profession of atheism' is 'almost unheard-of in Egypt' and is widely-considered 'an affront to society' as-a-whole."

"Well-done!" I exclaim.

"As opposed to a well done steak," says my son-in-law.

"I'm so-proud of you, son" says my wife, her eyes glassy with tears.

"And what say you, son in law?" I ask.

"When it comes to unit-modifiers, also called compound-adjectives," he says, "I'm at a long term loss."

"I want to play, Grampy," says Stephanie. "Is this an easy to learn game?"

"Indeed, it is," I say. "Just take-out all the hyphens where you need them -- as in easy to learn game -- and insert-them where you don't -- as in almost unheard-of."

"Just-like I see writers doing every-day at-work," says her father. "It's mind boggling."

"I get-it now," says Stephanie. "So, you sprinkle hyphens every-where and even-though you should use hyphens in unit-modifiers when they precede the word-they-modify, in this game you take-them-out?"

"Right-on!" says her uncle.

"What a first rate mind she has," I whisper to my wife.

"When you go-to kindergarten," says her mother, "you'll learn to spot check for missing hyphens."

"And when you go-to work," says her father, "you'll learn to follow-up a meeting by sending a follow up message."

"And to setup a meeting according to the set up instructions," says her uncle.

"Hold-on," I say. "Let's stay with Hyphen-ate. We can play SolidCompounds with dessert."

"Please, Grampy," says Stephanie. "I need an easy to understand explanation. I understand why you send a year end report at the end-of-the-year but not when to spot check or second guess."

"No-problem," I say. "The rules are easily-learned. Use hyphens in unit-modifiers or compound-adjectives when they precede the thing they modify ... "

"As in sure fire remedies," says her mother.

"And in not so distant future," says her father.

"Unless the unit is so-common there's no-risk of ambiguity," says her uncle.

"As in high-school students," says her grammy.

"In addition, certain compound-verbs take hyphens."

"Such as spot check and second guess," says her mother.

"Thank-you, Grampy," says Stephanie. "This has been so-fun."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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