Whale of a dilemma: Overlooked punctuation in 'Moby-Dick' augurs ill for hyphens

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

It’s a proven fact that as you get older you worry more about punctuation. Fussing about apostrophes and semicolons just comes with the territory.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the other day our coffee group started discussing the hyphen, in particular the hyphen in the title of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, “Moby-Dick.”

My wife, Cindy, a retired English teacher, alerted us to that hyphen, a piece of punctuation that was hiding in plain sight. Most of us didn’t know it was there, even though we claim to have read the novel.

“What hyphen?” we said, more or less in unison. “That can’t be.”

Moby-Dick cover
Moby-Dick cover

Cindy fired up her iPhone and found proof positive that there is a hyphen in the title. Though, in the book, Melville calls the whale Moby Dick, no hyphen, in all but one case.

It’s confusing, but that’s the way it is with punctuation. Commas and semicolons seem interchangeable, though the experts say they’re not. The correct use of those three dots known as an ellipsis is difficult. Some people love exclamation marks; others loathe them! Pick a side.

Amid this chaos, editors demand proper punctuation, which means I have to be on my toes. But, full disclosure, I’m a little unsure about when and how to use a hyphen. I blame my alma mater, Hamilton College.

When I went there in the early 1960s, the school prided itself on the teaching of writing. A copy “Essentials of English Usage,” was issued to all of us upon arrival, presumably with our dorm keys. I just looked. It makes no mention of hyphens.

The omission surprises me, as the manual takes strong stands on a lot of other matters grammatical, using the directive “must” a lot.

Hamilton students of my generation were told that “Every sentence must have a subject and a predicate.” Or else. Dangling elements were toxic. “They must be avoided.” Nowhere, as near as I can find, was I told when, or when not, a hyphen must be deployed.

So it looks like I graduated from college without any preparation in hyphen use. (Or should it be hyphen-use?) Then, in 1980, I found myself working for a hyphenated newspaper, the Rochester Times-Union and covering a hyphenated school district, Gates-Chili.

The Times-Union is now gone and the hyphen joining Gates and Chili has been dropped.

My sense is that the hyphens in all the other area school districts, Wheatland-Chili, Churchville-Chili, Rush-Henrietta, are endangered, that they will disappear when the anti-hyphen crowd takes control of their school boards.

It could happen. Google tells me that all the folks in Gen Z (mid-1990s to mid-2010s), future school-board members, don’t give a hoot about punctuation. They just fire off text after text, never even putting in periods, much less hyphens. Speed is the key, not rules from a previous century.

If Gen Zers have their way, the baffling hyphen will probably slip off the title page of “Moby-Dick,” ending any debate over why it is there.

What happens next?  A backlash.

A small group of hyphen holdouts will start hyphenating other titles, “Huckleberry-Finn,” “David-Copperfield,” “Pride-and-Prejudice.”

Friends-of-the-Hyphen chapters will spring up in Rochester-Henrietta-Irondequoit, at Hamilton-College.

The Democrat and Chronicle (Democrat & Chronicle on the website's home page) will drop the "and" as well as that showy ampersand and become the Democrat-Chronicle, a little like the Times-Union of old.

So many hyphens. So much time. Maybe Melville was right. Use them or lose them. Way-to-go, “Moby-Dick.”

Dr. Freddie Thomas: a remarkable Rochesterian

The Rochester school board recently restored the name of this educator to a district school building. Let’s also add his name to the list of Remarkable Rochesterians that can be found at: https://data.democratandchronicle.com/remarkable-rochesterians.

Dr. Freddie L. Thomas (1918-1974): A multitalented individual who grew up in Virginia when it was still segregated, he spent his life advocating for the education of young Black people in Rochester, inspiring them to stay with their studies. A researcher, inventor, and writer, he studied at Virginia State University, Wagner College, Albany Medical College and the University of Rochester. He worked at the Eastman Kodak Co., and he was a research scientist at the UR Medical School. A Rochester City School District middle school on Scio Street to open in 2024 will carry his name, as did a former district high school.

From his home in Geneseo, Livingston County, retired senior editor Jim Memmott, writes Remarkable Rochester, who we were, who we are. He can be reached at jmemmott@gannett.com or write Box 274, Geneseo, NY 14454.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Hyphens at risk of punctuation history unless they make a comeback