Too Many Hyphens – The New York Times

Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. (Some frequently asked questions are here.)

Hyphens can clarify a phrase and are sometimes crucial to the meaning. But if we sprinkle them heedlessly where they’re not called for, the effect is distracting at best and can be confusing.

A few unwanted hyphens in recent days:

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The nationwide poll is based on telephone interviews with 976 adults conducted May 31 through June 3 on landlines and cellphones and has a margin-of-sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

No hyphens wanted; here they actually distort the meaning. We don’t mean that the poll definitely has an error of three percentage points (with the hyphenated phrase describing what kind of error). We mean that there is a margin of three percentage points up or down, owing to potential sampling error.

•••

The request, which included seeking approval to train foreign internal security forces that had been off-limits to the American military, was the latest effort by the command’s top officer, Adm. William H. McRaven, to make it easier for his elite forces to respond faster to emerging threats and better enable allies to counter the same dangers.

As The Times’s stylebook says, no hyphen is called for unless this modifier is used before its noun.

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The $1.5-billion project was called Wfirst, for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

This one’s in the stylebook, too. No hyphen is needed when a million or billion figure is used as a modifier like this.

 

And Too Many Dashes

Used sparingly and carefully, the dash can be a helpful device. But as I’ve noted before, a profusion of dashes can be a sign of overstuffed sentences or convoluted prose. And when parentheses, colons and plenty of commas are added to the mix, well, it’s a mess. A couple of cautionary examples:

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WASHINGTON — As President Obama seeks re-election, he has one advantage that Bill Clinton did not have as president in 1996: a…

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