13 June 2017

Multiple qualifiers

Despite the fact that long strings of qualifiers are frowned upon by style guides, they are widely used, especially in technical writing and journalism for the simple reason that they offer a handy solution to a frequent problem, namely the clear, extended, multi-dimensional qualification of technical terms.

The challenges raised by how to order qualifiers probably explains why OSASCOMP: Applied analysis is by far the most frequently consulted post on this blog.

Many who have blogged, posted and tweeted on this, including me (see OSASCOMP in the news and OSASCOMP in the news), have failed to stress sufficiently that OSASCOMP only applies to unpunctuated strings of adjectives.

In Hysteria over hyphens, Johnson points out:
English is a Germanic language that allows for many different kinds of compounds, including those made from two adjectives (“blue-green”), two nouns (“kitchen sink”), adjective-noun (“darkroom”), noun-adjective (“slate-blue”) and so on. But which ones should be written separately, which hyphenated and which closed up?
To this I would add "And in what order should they be arranged where multiple qualifiers with different grammatical categories occur in combination?"

Johnson adds (my bold):
A bestselling guide to punctuation was subtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”. Punctuation pros sniggered. The Economist, like most other publications, would require a hyphen (“Zero-Tolerance”) here.
This hyphen is starkly different from the one in “arch-rival”. It has a critical grammatical function, not just a stylistic one. It tells the readers that several words are to be taken together as a single modifier. You can write “we have zero tolerance for bad punctuation,” but when “zero tolerance” is used to modify a noun, it acts a bit like an adjective. It does not become an adjective, as many people think. But taken together, as a modifier, “zero-tolerance” functions like a single word; hence the hyphen.
Reading means parsing grammar on the fly, a tricky task requiring concentration. Everything that helps with that does a favour to the reader. Strings of words with no punctuation can often be parsed in several ways. The hyphen eliminates one possibility. This not only speeds up comprehension, but in some (rare) cases, is crucial for avoiding ambiguity.
I have written repeatedly on OSASCOMP and multiple qualifiers, and will no doubt come back to the topic again and again, given that many challenges remain. Still, Hysteria over hyphens definitely takes us a few steps forward.

1 comment:

Glossary. Too little research.

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