In response to my previous post on dashes, one of Lingua Franca’s readers, Dan K, sent me an email noting that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, spells semicolon without a hyphen. I had spelled it with a hyphen — because in my head, that word has a hyphen. And the editors clearly didn’t have strong enough feelings about the spelling to change it.
The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language agrees with Merriam-Webster’s spelling, not with the spelling in my head. The entry in Wikipedia offers both spellings (semicolon and semi-colon). A handful of online writing websites, including the well-known Purdue OWL, use the hyphen in semi-colon; a lot of their peers opt for semicolon.
The illustrative quotations in the entry for semicolon (no hyphen) in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the variation in this word’s spelling is not new. The first quotation is from Ben Jonson’s English Grammar, published in 1640, and there is no hyphen:
A Semicolon is a distinction of an imperfect Sentence, wherein with somewhat a longer Breath, the Sentence following is included.
The next quotation is from Richard Hodges’s English Primrose (1644), and lo and behold, a hyphen:
At a comma, stop a little. At a semi-colon, somewhat more.
As a side note, the word hyphen first shows up in English just a few decades earlier (it is first cited in 1620 in the OED), although it was in use before then.
Now would be a good moment in the post for me to give you definitive advice about when to use a hyphen in a compound or any other word that comprises two or more grammatical elements. But I can’t. It is too idiosyncratic. Or call it “chaos,” to quote H.W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
David Crystal, in his recent book Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation, usefully notes the role that changes in fashion play in making the hyphen “the most unpredictable of marks.” Fashions about hyphenating specific compounds vary from publisher to publisher, style guide to style guide, and decade to decade. I’m struck that sometimes changes in hyphen fashion make newspaper headlines: for example, when the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from about 16,000 words in 2007, and when The New York Times changed e-mail to email in its style guide in 2013. We care about our hyphens.
When the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed those thousands of hyphens, some compounds became two words (ice cream) and some became one (pigeonhole). Crystal quotes the chief editor, Angus Stevenson, describing the hyphen as “messy looking and old-fashioned” (not all words lost their hyphens).
Sometimes the hyphen is a way station as a compound becomes fully accepted as a lexical item (leap-frog > leapfrog) or a combining form becomes assimilated (e-mail > email). Sometimes, though, as Crystal points out, we prefer a hyphen or a word break even in well-established compounds for aesthetic reasons (e.g., does glowworm look weird to you?). Then again, sometimes you need a compound not to have a word break so that, for example, a bluebird is distinguished from a bird that happens to be blue.
In the process of drafting this post, I have decided that I like the spelling semicolon better, which may or may not eventually change the intuitive spelling in my head. Semicolon aligns well with lots of other semi- words that don’t have a hyphen: semiconductor, semiannual, semiconscious, and so on.
Should “semi- words” have been combined into “semi-words”? I started with the latter and changed it to the former, to clarify that I am talking about words that start with semi- rather than partial words, even though italicizing semi- signals that semi-words are different from semi-words or semiwords (which my spellchecker (no hyphen) does not like). Not that I am sure what a semi-word is, but if I did want to write about semi-words for some reason, I would probably use the hyphen.