Beyond PR

Feb 27, 2012

Grammar Hammer: Jean-Paul Sartre Philosophizes About Hyphens

Via this column, we’ll explore one grammar rule each week. If you have a grammar question you’d like me to address, please drop me a line at and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most famous existentialist from the 20th century, and like many French people, he has a hyphenated name. Existentialism (in very broad and vague terms) is the idea that free will determines our existence and consciousness — so in short, it involves acting broody and mysterious while frequenting cafes. To honor this hyphenated hero of the mind, we’ll review four main uses for hyphenation.

1. Hyphens signify compound adjectives. Use hyphens to link the words of a compound adjective that precede a noun if uncertainty might occur otherwise.

  • Monsieur Sartre believed that to master outside-the-box thinking, one first had to exist outside the box.
  • Sartre wrote some eye-opening essays, but some were definitely eye-closing, too.

Do not use a hyphen if the first word of a compound adjective is an adverb ending in -ly

  • His ambiguously written “Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology” was hard to pronounce, let alone understand.

2. Hyphens act as a “stand in” for repeated words. These hyphens can also be referred to as “suspended hyphens.”

  • Sartre always used to sit in the same chair at the café, sometimes for two-, three- or four-month stretches, simply wondering, “The chicken, or the egg?”
  • There are both pro- and anti-Sartre existentialists, but the one thing they can all agree on is wine and unfiltered cigarettes.

3. Hyphens are used to create word breaks at the end of a line of text. Break up words syllabically. If the word is only one-syllable long, don’t break it up at all.

Here are two quotes from Sartre:

“For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is nec-

essary and sufficient for one to recount it.”

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is re-

sponsible for everything he does.”

(In the age of computers, most writers will not need to employ this rule regularly, but it doesn’t hurt to understand, as the issue still surfaces in newspaper and publishing rooms.)

4. Hyphens indicate special pronunciations, accents, dialects, intonations, etc.

  • Spelling out words: After finishing his last paper, Sartre took a final puff from his cigarette, stretched and exclaimed “D-O-N-E!”
  • Drawn out intonations: Stop asking me questions and just re-a-a-a-a-d already,” groaned Sartre. “I didn’t write 900 pages just for the fun of it.”
  • Stammering: “C-Camus?” he sputtered. “How dare you compare me to that nitwit!”

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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