Little Help, Please?

John Updike once commented in a letter to his editor William Maxwell, “It occurs to me that the world would not be significantly poorer if I stopped writing altogether. Only a bottomless capacity for envy keeps me going. That, and the pleasure of reading proofs and designing book jackets.”

I know what he meant, though I would never presume to design a book jacket, or, indeed, anything. One exercise I do get pleasure from is fussing with what to call a book. My forthcoming history of American songwriting in the post-Gershwin era has a provisional title and subtitle I’m happy with. It’s the punctuation that puzzles me.

That is, which is better, The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song or The B-Side (same subtitle)? I favor the unhyphenated version, but I have been overruled for the time being, and I want to figure out if I should go to the mat on this. And that’s where you come in.

The term I utilize in the title is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as  “(the music recorded on) the supporting or less important side of a single-playing gramophone record.” A synonym is “flip side.” The OED presents it as “B-side,” which would seem to settle the matter. But it doesn’t. The dictionary’s first citation of the term, from 1962, doesn’t have a hyphen. Twenty years before that, in 1942, Billboard, the magazine of the music industry, had the sentence: “‘I’m Not Sorry,’ on the B side, is pleasant but, for the most part, routine.” Billboard‘s  subsequent uses are hyphenless through the 1970s; since then, the two forms alternate. Not surprisingly, the OED has an entry for “A-side”; the first three citations, ranging from 1937 to 1968, lack hyphens.

It’s a little hard to find a general punctuational principle this question falls under. Compounds consisting of two nouns—student nurse, baseball player, candy corn—are not hyphenated (except before a noun), but the “B” in “B side” isn’t really a noun (much less an adjective). One of the entries in The Chicago Manual of Style‘s impressively capacious section on hyphenating compounds addresses the category “noun + numeral or enumerator.” Chicago says this is always “open” (that is, unhypenated). Examples: “round II meetings” and “type A executive.” Frustratingly, there is no category “numeral or enumerator + noun,” but I see no logical justification for hyphenating this type of compound, either: not “the B side,” and not “his A game,” “a B movie,” “the A list,” or “a B student,” either.

But it’s complicated. The Associated Press’s style guide calls for “A-list,” and my friend Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times copy desk tells me that AP poobahs have come out in favor of “A-game,” “B-side” and “C-suite.” The AP–and people–seem to have an urge to hyphenate in this situation, irrespective of any logic. I searched for the above phrases in American and British newspapers over the past three years, using the ProQuest database, and found wide variation. Here’s the percentage of time hyphens were used in noun forms. (That is, I didn’t count adjectival forms, as in “a B-movie specialist.”)

  • “B-student”: 0
  • “A-game”: 29
  • “B-movie”: 61
  • “A-list”: 77
  • and, yes, “B-side”: 77

Another wrinkle has to do with abbreviation. That doesn’t apply to the As and Bs above, but it does to phrases like “the N-word,” ” the F-bomb,” and “a C-section.” All three of those were hyphenated more than 90 percent of the time (100 percent for “C-section”) in the database.

Chicago brings up one final consideration when it notes, “With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online).” One can trace this three-step process in base ball/base-ball/baseball, to day/to-day/todaygood bye/good-bye/goodbye, and many other instances.  It may be that the current apparent affection for “B-side” is a sign of familiarity and (though I wouldn’t bet on it) a way station on the road to “Bside.”

So what do you think? If you have an opinion on the matter, please register it on the poll below. Thanks in advance.


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