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.