Do you want hyphens with that, sir? (Mistake #44)

Meet Rustic farmer Ben, presently ubiquitous on London’s transport system, and probably far beyond. He’s not rustic farmer Ben, which would be fine, or Rustic Farmer Ben, which would also be fine, if a little self-aggrandising, but Rustic farmer Ben, which is plain wrong and already predisposes me to want to slap him across the chops with a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. (Post on Random capitals Is stewing, by the Way.)

I have other reasons for wishing light corporal punishment on Rustic farmer Ben, including the loathsome literal truth that he is carrying around fifty trillion percent more hair on his head than I am on mine, that he is about as convincingly rustic as I am positively presidential, and that he carries the look of a man who has ploughed as many potato fields in his lifetime as I’ve captained space missions to Mars.

‘Sharing your phone call with the carriage guilt?’ this individual enquires of me.

I can’t say I have ever had experience of carriage guilt, Rustic farmer Ben, but I can confidently state that, to the best of my knowledge, I’m not sharing my phone call with it.

One presumes that what Rustic farmer Ben – or, let’s face the truth, the copywriter hired by McCain’s – actually meant was the somewhat hyphen-heavy ‘Sharing-your-phone-call-with-the-carriage guilt?’

(Let us not stop, at this point, and wonder why the more obvious alternative – ‘Guilt at sharing your phone call with the carriage?’ – was not employed, and instead press forward with what I hope will be a useful little lesson on hyphens.)

For hyphens are what you need, metropolitan unfarmer Ben. Hyphens join up words, urban-model-in-a-shirt-too-clean-to-belong-to-a-farmer Ben. They are very useful. You see, ‘black-cab drivers’ and ‘black cab-drivers’ are different groups of people. You get that, right?

So hyphens clarify and reduce the risk of ambiguity. Write ‘black cab drivers’ and you’re potentially confusing your reader. Write ‘Sharing your phone call with the carriage guilt?’ across my city’s transport system and you’re definitely narking me.

You have a plateful of stumpy chips before you, Rustic farmer Ben. They look as if they could act as make-do hyphens. Here’s a thought: why not slot them into place, between the words above your head? Isn’t that a great idea? I’ll still find you annoying, but at least you’ll be free of punctuational infelicity while I’m finding you annoying. But before you do that, I’ve got an even better suggestion for the one you’re holding.

Comments 19

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  • Great post. I must admit, until I read your explanation, I didn't understand the poster headline at all. As you say, it needs hyphens or (better) a complete rethink. I'm amazed that both client and agency apparently thought that this was a good idea.

  • And there was me thinking that 'eating-McCain's-rustic-chips-put-hairs-on-your-head'

    Actually, have you considered that there are no hyphens in the words because, as you say, the text should be so hyphen-heavy that the hyphens have all fallen onto Rustic Ben's plate? Perhaps chips are simply potato-flavoured hyphens?

  • I thought it was just me! I had to re-read this poster several times to figure out what it meant. Amazing that it got as far as release!

  • Thanks all. Oh I didn't get it straight away either – and judging by the comments I've had here and elsewhere a lot of very bright people didn't either!

  • Very funny post, thanks Alex! I didn't get the caption either till you explained it. And let me say I personally prefer slap-heads over hedge-heads any day.

  • Very funny. I'd seen that on the tube and took a good while to work it out.

    My own favourite sack-the-agency advert at the moment (although not hyphen-related) is one for a certain high street bank that is, I believe, trying to suggest that they give you the facts and hide nothing. What they actually say (or my paraphrased memory of it) is 'We hide nothing. Just the facts.'

    Is that just me?

  • @ womag – ref: line three. Ah! My favourite comment on this blog *ever*!

    @ Bernadette – I *think* I know the one but tend to switch off at bank advertising. Will pay attention next time…

  • Hi Alex- well put! I've been thinking the same thing, passing that advert on a bus stop twice a day. Who says the Punctuation Police don't have a sense of humour?!

    Would you become a fan of mine on Facebook? 🙂 I'm a networking short story and article writer, trying to find a publisher for my first novel 'Girl Meets Boys', documenting the amusing and embarrassing search online in my 20's for a suitable boyfriend.

  • Thanks Louise! But am a Facebook denier, I'm afraid!

  • That made me laugh out loud Alex. I often type up quotations for my husband (not quotations as in famous sayings; quoations as in 'this is how much it will cost'!) and I often fret over my use of the hyphen. For example, this morning I typed: "Rebuild approximately 20m of hammer-dressed rubble walling and re-point whole area to match existing". I can't tell you why I placed a hyphen in 're-point' and not in 'rebuild', other than because 'repoint' just doesn't look right! (And, that's how I've been writing it for the past 20 odd years!) So, am I getting it right?

  • Thanks Jane. I think a hyphen is useful when there could be ambiguity. Eg recover (get better) and re-cover (cover again). But a proper post on hyphens will come one day…

  • I saw this poster several weeks ago and thought exactly the same thing. What a poor piece of under-punctuated advertising. Glad you have posted on it.

  • Great post. Until I read your explanation I thought there must be something called "Carriage Guilt" with which I was unfamiliar…

  • I think the advertisers were very clever – they've manipulated you into giving them extra exposure for free. Sometimes I think adverts are deliberately annoying/wrong, just to get us to talk about them.

  • But bafflingly wrong, as in this case? You may be onto something though – there's another one in this 'suite' of ads, seen at stations, where the question is (approx) 'directing the tourists the wrong way guilt?' Doubly annoying…

  • Alex,

    You've just left a permanent finger print (or is it finger-print?) on the London Walks website! And thanks very much for same. All of which is by way of saying I've been at sea for years over that "black cab driver" usage. Was aware of the "problem" but dunderheadedly couldn't see my way out of the maddening ambiguity corner into which it seemingly painted me. And Voila!* thanks to a nudge from one of Scotland's finest I ambled over here and the rest is that elixir: clarity. Thanks again.

    *yes, I know, it needs a grave [and grave needs one as well and on it goes] – or an acute or whatever it is, but no can do just now just here

  • Haha – is it 'fingerprint'? Give my regards to Scotland's finest and thank you, in turn, for introducing me to one of my new-entry top-ten favourite words: dunderheadedly.

  • […] dashes (not hyphens, by the way) when you want to emphasise the information, for some reason. In the third case, the […]

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